Few filmmakers have had as much of an auspicious beginning to their career like Cooper Raiff has. Raiff first reached out to indie filmmaker Jay Duplass with a short film that he made, and was quickly taken under his wing. From this, he made his feature debut with Sh*thouse, a micro-budget film about an awkward college freshman struggling to adjust to his new surroundings, and the relationship he forms with his more outgoing RA. The film premiered at SXSW in March of 2020, and ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize. This was a bittersweet moment for Raiff, as SXSW had switched to a virtual format due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases at that time. But it garnered him lots of acclaim and attention, and quickly asserted him as a director to watch. Fast forward to now, where his second feature Cha Cha Real Smooth premiered at Sundance, which due to the Omicron variant, also had to switch to a virtual format. While Raiff can't seem to catch a break when it comes to seeing his work in person with a full audience, it seems that he might be heading towards similar success with this film, and may continue to thrive in these less than ideal circumstances.
While his first film tackled the struggles of adjusting to college life, this film focuses on life after graduation. Fresh out of college, Andrew (played by Cooper Raiff himself) moves back in with his mom and stepdad and seeks to make something of himself. He manages to find steady work as a party starter for Bar Mitzvahs, and in the process, meets Domino, a young mother, and Lola, her autistic daughter. Andrew and Domino quickly develop a strong bond, and the film explores their desires to find a sense of stability. Both of them are searching for something to hold on to, and their chance encounter forces them to confront the paths their lives are heading down, and question whether or not it's the right choice.
This film captures the messiness that comes with post-grad life so perfectly, and as someone who graduated college not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, it hit pretty close to home. That wanting to have a job, a partner, and all the things that we have been told that adults should have by the time you graduate, is magnified the moment you get your diploma. This film understands that, and captures the weird limbo between college and adulthood so well. Much like in his debut, Raiff demonstrates a surprising amount of maturity and emotional intelligence in his storytelling, and creates something that is true to life and so indicative of a specific time in a person's life.
Raiff fancies himself as a bit of a triple-threat, as he has served as the writer, director, and lead actor in both of his features. Normally, I would be turned off by this, and say that he should pick a lane, but the fact is that he does all three things rather well. I would say that his acting is the weakest of the three, but even then he's not half bad. It feels like he's pulling from his own life and experience in places, and that allows him to feel like more of a real person. I do appreciate that this film allows him to play a more outgoing character, as he played a more reserved character in his debut. As a director, he shows a good deal of confidence, and it feels like he is coming more into his own here. It helps that he has a little more money to work with, but he is also coming at this with some experience under his belt. He improves upon what he did well with Sh*thouse, and it helps the film feel much more focused and impactful.
While Raiff has shown himself to be more than capable as an actor and as a director, he is arguably most gifted as a writer. While the premises of both his films are rather simple, he injects them with vulnerability, humor, and a sense of realism that seems to really connect with audiences. I feel that he is particularly great at writing characters and dialogue, as he manages to make both seem highly realistic. The dialogue never feels overwritten or implausible, and the characters feel like actual people. This is especially true with Cha Cha Real Smooth, as it feels like such a personal story that it wouldn't surprise me if Raiff pulled a lot of the script from real events. He is such an honest writer, and he is able to create such emotionally rich stories so well.
This film also features a career-best performance from Dakota Johnson, who is giving a more quiet and internalized performance than usual, but it is absolutely perfect for the film itself. Her performance is a great complement to Raiff's more extroverted, life-of-the-party persona, and some of her subtler choices manage to speak volumes. I feel that she reads younger than the age she is playing here, but I was able to suspend my disbelief a little. Her and Raiff's chemistry might not be what most people will expect, but it fits the narrative quite well, and plays into the inherent messiness of the film very well.
The biggest surprise of the film for me was how well it represents autism. Films tend to misrepresent autism, and rely on stereotypes, inaccurate information, and ableist ideas. This film largely avoids these, and gives a more honest portrayal of autism than most pieces of media I've seen lately. A lot of this is thanks to Vanessa Burghardt, who plays Domino's daughter Lola. Both the character and Burghardt herself are autistic, which leads to a more accurate portrayal of the character. It's refreshing to see a more authentic portrayal of autism, and I hope that other filmmakers will take note of this when writing autistic characters. As for Burghardt, gives such an honest performance, and I feel that she is definitely one to watch in the future.
I've been seeing the word "crowdpleaser" being tossed around when describing this film, and while I feel that it's an apt descriptor, it does feel a bit reductive. Yes, it's absolutely charming and much more accessible than Raiff's previous film, but it is much more than a crowdpleaser to me. This is a film that is so warm, joyous, and comforting that I am already looking forward to the next time I see it. It does seem to hit all the right buttons given the overwhelmingly positive response it's been getting out of Sundance, but it hit me deeper than your typical feel-good movie. It took me back to such a specific time in my life, and surprised me with its emotional depth and how much Raiff has improved as a filmmaker. I am definitely looking forward to what he does next, and I hope that he continues to build off the momentum of his first two films. Cha Cha Real Smooth left me with such a full heart, and is one that truly struck a chord with me. It is an absolute joy of a film, and is sure to be one of the most endearing films of the year.