Cooper Raiff was 22 years old when his first film, the wonderful Shithouse, made a splash at the cancelled 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival. A film made for just $15,000, Raiff explored early college life to sometimes shockingly relevant results. Stemming from a fifty minute short he made, Raiff tweeted a link to the short to filmmaker Jay Duplass daring him watch it and email him back. That’s exactly what Duplass did. Through the seasoned veterans guidance, Raiff created a feature that turned into Shithouse. In addition to it’s micro budget, Raiff shot the film Guerrilla style and one point telling one of the films actors the police could shut them down at any time.
Now just two years later, Raiff finds himself—virtually—at Sundance with a new film, Cha Cha Real Smooth. This time he arrives with some star power to the films call sheet. Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann and Brad Garrett are among the films most recognizable faces with Johnson also serving as a producer. Raiff also stars in his new movie which once again proves him as a modern filmmaker to watch. Raiff crafts a remarkably relevant portrait of the post-college existential paranoia of the question most college graduates ask upon graduation; “now what?”. Cooper Raiff is—or should be—to Gen Z what Duplass or Richard Linklater have been to previous generations, most notably Gen X. But Raiff’s story telling transcends Gen Z specific concerns. Cha Cha Real Smooth is as generation-less as films can be in terms of its what it is trying to convey.
It isn’t as simple as “get a job” for most college graduates in the modern world. Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college graduate with seemingly no direction. He’s working at a corn dog stand called “Meat Sticks”. He is stuck back at home sharing a bedroom with his younger brother. Through attending bar and bat mitvahs for his younger brother’s friends, he stumbles on a gig emceeing the events as a party host. Andrew’s sweet and kind nature often makes him the life of the party and perfectly suited for said gigs. From the parties, he also meets a single mom Domino (Johnson) who’s daughter Lola is autistic. Andrew falls for Domino and she in turn is captivated by his charm and his ability to connect with Lola in a way it is implied few have.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is at its best when Raiff and Johnson are on screen together. Their chemistry holds the film together very nicely. Johnson gives one of her best performances as the single mother archetype you’ve seen before. But, it is her sincerity in the performance, and Raiff’s script that breathes new life into the character. Raiff also is tremendous in the movie. He has a tremendous amount of charisma that oozes off the screen. Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt is also really great as Lola. The trio of actors truly elevates the film.
But all the side characters also are great. Leslie Mann plays Andrews mom and Brad Garrett plays Andrews step-dad. The only interactions in the film that feel out of character are the ones between Andrew and the step-father. It’s hard to buy that a person as kind-hearted as Andrew would treat someone with such disdain. Particularly given that the step-dad character does seem to truly care about his mom. It was a relationship that was tough to buy in to.
That minor flaw aside, Raiff’s script captures such specific feeling that it never feels inauthentic. Two movies in, Raiff has established himself as an adept observer of humans and in particular young people. The movie is also just flat out very funny. Raiff’s line delivery and all set-ups work really well in the movie. There is a certain breeziness to Raiff’s humor. It never feels shoehorned in or that he’s writing scenes just to get a laugh. Cha Cha Real Smooth finds humor in almost everything it explores.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is a huge standout from Sundance. It is a kind-hearted, very funny movie about growing up, first loves and finding oneself. The film just sold to Apple for a sum of $15 million. Apple TV+ is a wonderful platform for the film to land on. Wherever it is able to be seen, it’s a must see. Raiff is a filmmaker on the rise and an incredibly important voice for this generation.
Above all, Cha Cha Real Smooth is just a really fun, feel-good movie, with a fun title at that. In a span of just two years, Raiff has made a pair of films that feel more authentic to current generation experiences than any filmmaker has touched thus far. Surely, there will be more to come. But Raiff’s explosion onto the scene is a welcome addition, and a striking new voice. It’s hard not to be excited about what’s next for him.