It has never been easier to create. It used to be that access to the tools needed to make movies was beyond the reach of most, but now advances in technology have largely democratized that access. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you can afford to make sure it gets seen. Rather, this new level of access just means there’s a lot more noise you have to separate the signal from a quality job.
On the other hand, there’s someone like Cooper Raiff, who seems to have fundamentally developed as a filmmaker. He’s still young, but hey — when you’re in your mid-twenties and you’ve already crushed Sundance twice, you’re doing something right.
Raiff’s latest triumph is “Cha Cha Real Smooth”, currently available to stream on Apple TV+; the streamer bought the film’s distribution rights from Sundance (where it won the audience award) for $15 million. Raiff wrote and directed and, oh yeah, stars in the film, the story of an aimless recent college grad whose bar mitzvah-busting side leads him into unconventional relationships.
Equal parts soft and sharp, it’s a well-crafted portrait of a young man trying to figure out exactly what he wants from the world even as he struggles. He’s adrift and looking for some kind, any kind of connection. It’s funny and poignant, radiating wacky energy and quirky sincerity, a compelling look at what happens next when you don’t know what happens next.
Andrew (Cooper Raiff) has just graduated from college and returned home to live with his mother (Leslie Mann) and stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett); he shares a room with his younger brother David (Evan Assante) and works at a Meat Sticks stand, while hoping to save enough money to go to Barcelona to see his girlfriend Fulbright Scholar Maya (Amara Saquel).
One evening, David asks Andrew to accompany him to an acquaintance’s bar mitzvah. This is where Andrew discovers a potential calling – he manages to invigorate the crowd so completely that a group of other mothers ask him to hire him to hype up bar guests and bat mitzvahs of their own. children. It’s also when he first meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and his autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), sparking Domino’s interest when he arranges for the usually reluctant Lola to hit the dance floor. of dance.
His career as a party facilitator gets off to a rocky start, with lots of ups and downs – usually involving Andrew’s disdain for bullies and bullying. He also begins to grow closer to Domino and Lola, even as he discovers that Domino has a fiancé, a lawyer named Joseph (Raul Castillo). Meanwhile, Andrew tries to counsel his younger brother about girls while dealing with his creeping suspicion that Maya may have left their relationship.
When Andrew begins to spiral, he seems unable to figure out exactly what he wants, projecting his desires and insecurities onto the people around him. Questionable choices ensue as he struggles to navigate the maze of his own creation, while trying to energize regular children’s parties. But when it comes to doing what’s right, he’ll find he has people on his side – even if what they’re telling him isn’t what he wants to hear.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” would be a pretty impressive achievement for any filmmaker, but for one so young, it’s a real triumph. Raiff is a legitimate triple threat. His directorial eye, while still a bit raw, is sharp and clear – he has a real talent for visual storytelling and bringing out evocative performances from actors. As a performer, he has a lot of natural charisma and an underlying vulnerability that makes him appealing, even when playing a flawed character. And his screenwriting skills are perhaps the most important of the three; he has a real talent for writing for young people with depth and nuance, extracting the pathos not just from the big stuff, but also from the mundane. Put it all together and it’s no wonder so many people in the industry want to be part of the Cooper Raiff business.
This movie is a wonderful character study, an examination of a young man teetering into adulthood with no real idea of what to do now that he’s here. There’s a universality to this lack of direction that makes the story relatable – we all don’t know what to do next. And by presenting him in this wonderful juxtaposition of a guy who can’t grow up throwing parties meant as symbolic transitions to adulthood, I mean…*the chef’s kiss.
The performance is also excellent. We’ve talked about Raiff, who carries a lot of the load, but the rest of the set is top notch. Johnson is magnificent in the role of Domino, this complex and damaged woman who nevertheless finds her way. Burghardt is perfect as Lola. As for Andrew’s family unit, Mann is great as a supportive, slightly dispersed mother. Garrett is delightfully gruff as stepdad Greg. And the dynamic between Raiff and Assante as David is nothing short of exceptional; the brotherly energy is off the charts, leaving us in no doubt about the sheer power of their brotherly love.
Put it all together and you have one hell of a movie. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is an outstanding sophomore effort from Cooper Raiff. Despite three very heavy caps, he excels in all three areas. Sure, there are flaws, imperfections, but the mere fact that someone so young is working so well so early on is incredibly impressive.
I said it after his feature debut “S-those” and I’m saying it now – expect Cooper Raiff’s star to keep shining brighter and brighter.
[4.5 out of 5]