When a filmmaker comes out with an acclaimed work that marks their breakthrough, it’s worth paying attention to what comes next. Cooper Raiff delivered S#!&house, a story of a college freshman who spends a night with his RA, at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, taking home the grand jury prize. Raiff returns with Cha Cha Real Smooth, another outing as director, writer, producer, and star, featuring a protagonist who could well be the future version of his previous character, given several years to mature and not having necessarily taken advantage of the opportunity.
Andrew (Raiff) is twenty-two and has just graduated from college. He is planning to follow his girlfriend to Barcelona, but lacks the motivation to get his plan together. While he spends his days drowning in monotony working at a fast-food restaurant, he discovers an unexpected talent after he attends a bat mitzvah with his younger brother (Evan Assante). His efforts to get Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), the autistic daughter of a woman he finds attractive, Domino (Dakota Johnson), to dance earn him a job as a party-starter at the weekly celebrations. As he gets closer with Domino, Andrew takes stock of his life and what he actually finds important.
It’s wonderful to see Raiff back on screen after the tremendous promise he demonstrated with S#!&house. This really is the next logical step for his storytelling journey, meeting someone who has no idea what the world holds but has developed a larger sense of it than just his dorm room. He doesn’t try to get Lola involved in the party only because he wants to get to know her mom, but because he is a genuinely likeable guy whose main flaws are overindulgence and an inability to distinguish which moments in life require professionalism.
Raiff has a natural, likeable quality about him that makes him the perfect person to star in this film. It’s easy to imagine that Andrew would really exist, someone who is fun and committed to other people enjoying themselves. He’s not always able to see when he crosses a line and upsets someone because they don’t want to be told what to do, like the bullies he tries to stop from teasing Lola whose parents are even more vicious than their children. The warm relationship Andrew has with his mother (Leslie Mann) is particularly endearing, while the banter he directs at his stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett) is highly entertaining and gives him the best outlet for his immaturity.
Raiff has assembled a terrific cast to join him for this film. Burghardt, who, like her character, is autistic, is a welcome presence on screen, finding humor in the interactions she has with those around her and particularly opposite Raiff. Assante is also a great find, and Mann is delightful. It’s especially wonderful to see Johnson, who also headlines another film playing at Sundance this year, Am I OK?, who brings a rich chemistry with Raiff and makes her own character feel lived-in and textured, not any one thing and far more complicated than Andrew initially believes.
Cha Cha Real Smooth, like S#!&house before it, is an extremely accessible film, one that requires little introduction and thrives on the energy of its characters. It’s also the kind of film that feels universal in that it understands there is nothing extraordinary about any of its characters that makes them completely unique, but their being together in this specific story is able to make for a compelling, involving, and truly enjoyable viewing experience. Raiff’s next film should be highly anticipated given this result.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.