Ask anyone over a certain age, adulthood is the most difficult aspect of life we try to navigate. And we thought grade school is bad. Many claim they have it all figured out, but that’s a lie, no one has any grasp on how life should actually be lived. As kids, you think the adults were well put together, making everything look simple and easy. Every question had an answer, every moment of sadness, anger, and fear is met with a calming presence, only to realize how wrong you are once you hit the same age – nothing has been figured out, there is no correct way to live life, it’s all a hoax, a barely held together disaster waiting to combust. No one understands this more than writer/director/star Cooper Raiff in his sophomore effort Cha Cha Real Smooth, the Sundance Film Festival darling that’s now finally streaming on Apple TV Plus.
One of the rare pleasures of the early days in the ongoing pandemic was discovering this indie film made and released on streaming by Raiff titled Shithouse. In his directorial debut, Raiff plays a college freshman on the precipice of figuring out life. He gets homesick often and frequently breaks down, unable to cope with how fast life moves and the constantly changing social expectations placed on a college aged person. Everything Raiff learned from that film which had a budget of 15k is applied to his next film. The 25-year-old writer/director/actor is on a meteoric rise as a talent to be watched over the coming decades.
His follow up Cha Cha Real Smooth bears quite a bit of resemblance to his debut. With a bigger budget, a studio like Apple behind him, and surrounded by a talented cast, Coopers ability to leave you in a complete wreck of emotions from dialogue hasn’t changed with his voice and style as a director.
Andrew (Cooper Raiff) is 22 and a recent graduate of Tulane University on the cusp of getting an adult job while simultaneously figuring life out. Sounds vaguely familiar to the premise of Shithouse, only Andrew is now out in the real world, moving back home with his mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), younger brother David (Evan Assante), and stepdad Greg (Brad Garrett) as he searches for different ways to save enough money to buy a plane ticket to Barcelona. With no real direction or motivation to find work, Andrew comes across a mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) at a Bar Mitzvah his brother invites him to.
With just two films under his belt, both coming-of-age stories that feature the usual tropes, Raiff’s talent shines the brightest as the story continuously takes unexpected turns. It’s the journey of Andrew that you get behind the moment he’s on screen. You cheer for him with each victory and feel his sadness with defeat. Raiff laces his character with a quiet confidence while his charisma pops off the screen. Raiff is the type of person to give you the shirt off his back even if it means he won’t have one for himself and it extends into his writing.
Without realizing it, Andrew is an influencer – not in the sense of a social media presence but in how the character lives his life. Full of optimism, compassion, a genuine sense of understanding and empathy, a complete goofball who wears his heart on his sleeve – Cooper gets it, he’s the man all men strive to be. The man that will make a woman fall head over heels for him without saying a word but due to the age difference between him and Domino, a relationship just won’t work between the two, even when all the signs point toward it and the two can be completely comfortable around one another.
Like I mention above, waves of emotion will crash into you as the journey progresses from college grad to Andrew knowing the person he is at the young age of 22. Where was Cooper when I was 22 and needed these reassurances in life? Finding yourself is easy, knowing the person you are going to be for the rest of your life is the tough part. You can be completely confident at 22 and have everything figured out, unsure of yourself in your 50’s and lost in your 30’s. Nobody will ever unlock the secret of life, no matter how much wisdom they possess.
Early on when all the moms unanimously agree to let Andrew be a party starter for Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, Andrew grows increasingly close with Domino but most importantly Lola. Opposite Raiff is Dakota Johnson who has come into her own and delivered on some memorable performances over the past few years. Here, she’s mysterious, playful, a tease, and an astounding mother with big eyes and a bigger heart. Together, both have a charmingly sweet yet sexually tense chemistry that will draw you in like a moth to a flame and leave you feeling happy that you met these characters yet sad that the outcome didn’t match the expectations.
If Raiff is the foundation, Johnson is the heart and soul, Vanessa Burghardt is the backbone of Cha Cha Real Smooth. Completely engrossing as a character, Raiff’s talent as a screenwriter is strongest with her dialogue that’s compounded by a brilliant performance. Able to say what she means and mean what she says, Lola will steal more than just Andrew’s heart. It’s a message to bullying and inclusion, getting to know people with autism, high functioning or not will only enrich the soul.
Just like the song the lyrics of the title came from; Cha Cha Real Smooth is a 107-minute dance. At first, you’re shy, unsure you want to step out on the dance floor and as you gain confidence in your moves and ability during the middle of the song, by the end you’ve mastered it, you’re a pro, brave and courageous to take on the world. Life is like the Cha Cha Slide.
No matter how minor the supporting role is, Cooper’s screenplay gives enough development to all, having a well thought out and executed arc. Whether it’s his brother David who makes significant advancements with his girlfriend or Greg who both share a bond over a brawl that both get roped into unintentionally. At 107 minutes, the transition from act two into three slows the pace down a touch but the journey ends on a satisfying note leaving the characters in a better space mentally and physically to move on to their next chapter. The only real criticism I have against this film is not enough of the Cha Cha Slide played. Everything in between with make you cry one minute and smile the next.
Written By: Cooper Raiff
Directed By: Cooper Raiff
Music By: Este Haim & Chris Stracey
Cinematography: Christina Dunlap
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Evan Assante, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Raúl Castillo
Where to Watch: Apple TV Plus
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 47 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%