Writer-Director Cooper Raiff takes the next step as a filmmaker
Building on the charms of his debut film Shithouse, writer-director-actor Cooper Raiff delivers a strong sophomore feature with Cha Cha Real Smooth. Like his first film, Cha Cha follows a young man who is struggling to define himself and his place in a world where seemingly everyone else has plans. The world certainly isn’t lacking for stories by and about young white men, but Raiff brings an empathetic scope to his films that opens them up in ways that make his work endearing instead of grating.
Raiff stars as Andrew, a 22-year-old fresh out of college with no idea where he’s heading. Well, that’s not exactly true. He’s back at home with his mom, stepdad, and brother (played, respectively, by Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, and Evan Assante). He’s also got his first post-grad job working at a hotdog stand at the mall. What Andrew lacks in status he makes up for with charm. There’s an effortlessness to the character that disarms him. He’s quick to dispense advice or jump start a party that’s on life support. It’s at an early bar mitzvah where Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). From there the story charts the evolution of Andrew and Domino’s relationship, while keeping a close eye on the other people in Andrew’s orbit.
The movie is a lowkey affair, never getting too big in its actions and allowing the characters and performances carry the film. The script is sharp and observant. Every time the plot heads toward a predictable conflict it subverts itself. Take, for instance, the relationship between Andrew and Domino. Domino’s fiancé is always at work, leaving her to carry the burden of raising their daughter. A lesser film would’ve turned their whole thing into a will-they-won’t-they deal that no one would’ve cared about. Instead, Cha Cha is determined to steer away from that, and it takes the film to more emotionally rewarding places. Andrew spends as much time with Lola as he does with Domino, and their scenes together provide some of the film’s most satisfying moments.
The movie captures a specific moment in time, that feeling of being on the precipice of something major that may or may not come. The epiphany for Andrew, and the thing that really makes the movie sing, is that everyone is grappling with their own things and while their paths are intersecting for this small bit of time all we can do is help each other out or allow others to help us. His little brother David is going through his first crush. Domino is considering going back to school while her fiancé feels the strain of being away from home too much. Andrew’s parents don’t seem to be as happy as they appear. The movie may not have enough time to find resolution for everyone, but it does well by its characters to hint at the fuller lives they’re leading beyond what we get to see. It’s honest and it’s real. And that allows the movie to successfully turn the spotlight over to minor characters for key moments.
Cha Cha Real Smooth feels like a continuation and natural expansion of everything Raiff set out to do with Shithouse, only this time there’s more confidence behind it. Cha Cha is a little bit bigger in its scope, cast, and filmmaking, without sacrificing the intimacy that made Shithouse a success. I guess this is growing up.
Cha Cha Real Smooth hits AppleTV on June 17th