Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth is No Sophomore Slump

Sundance Institute

Cooper Raiff’s sophomore effort, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is a spiritual sequel to his SXSW award-winning debut feature, Sh*thouse. Writer/director/co-editor Raiff stars as Andrew, a recent college graduate who’s unsure of what to do with his marketing degree. His ex-girlfriend has gone off to Barcelona to begin a new life, while Andrew moves back home to live with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett), and brother David (Evan Assante).

Andrew finds a part-time job working for Meat Sticks in the mall and spends his downtime obsessing over his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend on social media. His mom asks him to take David to a classmate’s bar mitzvah. Andrew inadvertently becomes the party starter and gets the shy middle-schoolers to dance and enjoy themselves. This snowballs into parents asking him to be the party-starter at their kids’ upcoming mitzvahs.

While at the party, Andrew catches sight of Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Neither of them is dancing because Lola is autistic and often finds crowds overwhelming. Andrew is immediately smitten with Domino, and Lola takes a liking to Andrew’s goofiness and kindness. He quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Domino, Lola, and Domino’s often-absent fiancé, Joseph (Raúl Castillo).

Cooper Raiff looks at Dakota Johnson in a doorway
Sundance Institute

Much as Kristen Stewart’s acting talents were once widely mocked, criticized, Johnson has been written off because of her performance in the 50 Shades of Grey series. Stewart’s Oscar nomination for Spencer this year shows how long it took for public opinion about her to catch up with her talent. Those who stumble upon Cha Cha Real Smooth when it arrives on Apple TV in June will probably select the movie in spite of Johnson. They may be shocked when Johnson turns in a nuanced, evocative performance as Domino. Those who have paid attention to her career in the years since 50 Shades will see Cha Cha Real Smooth as another feather in her cap. This year alone, she has starred in and stolen the show in Am I Ok? and The Lost Daughter.

Raiff’s films lead with a sensitivity that is uncommon for many male writers/directors. He has no interest in portraying himself as emotionally closed off as a means of expressing strength. Raiff allows his male characters to openly cry on screen. While it may not seem revolutionary, it’s hard to think of another movie in recent years written by someone as young as Raiff (he’s 23) that allows the male characters to be so outwardly emotional. Raiff may very well be Gen Z’s Mike Mills. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Mills and Raiff. Their love for family is always at the forefront of their work, and they understand the importance of broadening the definition of masculinity.

Cooper Raiff talking and crying on the phone
Sundance Institute

Cha Cha Real Smooth lives in the confusing time of life that comes immediately after college. Andrew has just spent four years on his own, coming and going as he pleased, not answering to anyone. Now he is sleeping on the floor in his little brother’s room in his parent’s house, and the culture shock is jarring. It’s a distinct shift in freedom, and it’s difficult for Andrew to get used to being treated like a child again. He believes he understands the world because he’s been to college, but he’s still so young. At times his youthful energy is misguided, making him arrogant in a way that’s not coming from a place of rudeness. It’s just the confusing, mixed-up times of the early twenties.

It was exciting to see an autistic actor, Burghardt, playing an autistic role, and to see Lola treated as a fully developed character. The interaction between Andrew and Lola is particularly striking. In one memorable scene, Andrew asks if being around him is draining for Lola. She admits that she enjoys spending time with him, but it’s also important for her to have time with no one else around. Andrew is jealous that she’s content with being alone and recognizes that he ties his self-worth to being around people. His need to be surrounded by others is evident in his success as a bar mitzvah party-starter and in the way he desperately latches onto Domino and Lola.

There’s a brief romantic relationship between Domino and Andrew that is a fascinating exploration of the way people view and understand love. Domino’s and Andrew’s lives are starkly different, and the way they view each other and the relationship they form could not be more at odds. At times, their conversations have qualities of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Andrew shares Jesse’s youthful, romantic, self-righteousness, while Domino shares Celine’s more pragmatic approach to love.

Cha Cha Real Smooth solidifies Raiff as an important voice in a new generation of filmmakers. Everything he learned from Sh*thouse is on full display in this film. At times achingly heart-wrenching and darkly humorous, Cha Cha Real Smooth is a triumph—a near-perfect exploration of the restlessness, frustration, and exuberance of being young and feeling old.

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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