4.5 out of 5 stars

Cooper Raiff occupies a unique space in the film landscape. His movies are clearly works based on the forebearers of his style (Richard Linklater, Judd Apatow, etc.), but they’re sincere and empathetic in a way most modern films fail or even refuse to reach. The writer-director and star of Cha Cha Real Smooth first burst onto the scene with Shithouse (2020), a talky, tender look at the feeling of listlessness that often comes between the end of education and the beginning of adulthood.

Lots of great films have taken place during this period, from outright comedies and tragedies to horror and crime films, but it’s summertime dramedies that are most often the setting for the subgenre. Cha Cha Real Smooth continues that thematic exploration for Raiff, with even better execution and a larger canvas to paint on.

The story revolves around Andrew (Raiff), an aimless college graduate spending the summer at his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad Greg’s (Brad Garrett) house. His goal is to save up enough money working at mall restaurant Meat Sticks to be able to fund a trip to Barcelona, which is where his fling Maya (Amara Pedroso) is spending the summer finishing her Fulbright. 

Andrew’s tasked with taking his younger brother David (Evan Assante) to a Bar Mitzvah, where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and re-connects with his friend Macy (Odeya Rush). He also finds he has a knack for getting the party started and the dance floor full. 

A collection of the local mothers duly bombard Andrew after the Bar Mitzvah, convincing him to be their “Party Starter” for the rest of the summer, and because he hates his Meat Sticks job and is still trying to finance a trip to Spain, Andrew glady accepts. He also genuinely enjoys the role, so it doesn’t feel like work to him.

During the first party, Andrew hit it off with Domino and Lola, even convincing the latter to join him on the dance floor, something Domino bet him $300 would be impossible due to her autism. And because of their connection and his affable nature, Domino offers Andrew a job as Lola’s sitter. So the pair live in Domino’s fiance Joseph’s (Raul Castillo) place, who’s a high-level lawyer working a case that often sends him to Chicago.

Burghardt, who has autism in real life, brings authenticity to the role that helps form Cha Cha Real Smooth’s emotional core. Andrew and Lola have great chemistry together, as do Andrew and Domino, thanks in part to career-best work from Dakota Johnson (Suspiria), who’s so vulnerable in the role and breaks through her usually steely on-screen demeanour.

Raiff’s level of sincerity and earnestness is perhaps too much for some, but it fosters an environment that brings out such wonderful performances. Cha Cha Real Smooth is a coming-of-age screenplay that shows empathy for people of all walks of life, and not just for the young people at its centre, which is a big part of its success. 

Raiff’s acumen in the director’s chair is strong as well. This isn’t a splashy, OTT showcase, but it looks and feels like a real film, which is more than one can say for a lot of streaming originals around, especially in this low-budget genre. It helps that Apple TV+ only distributed the movie, as it was made without their direct involvement.

Which begs the question ‘what would a larger-budgeted movie from Cooper Raiff look like?’ He graduated from micro-budget movies to prestige indies without a hiccup, but I wonder how well his style would translate the further up the chain he goes? I’d love to find out what he could do with more money. The problem is that in the current cultural landscape, I don’t see how that’s possible. Unless something changes and we see something of a return to pre-COVID-19 film studio normalcy, Raiff will either be stuck making films at this financial level or will have to latch on to some sort of major property. I hope he’s able to find a niche in between if that’s even what he wants. 

Regardless, Cha Cha Real Smooth is impressive work. As pop culture and cinema, in particular, continues to sneer at genuine sincerity, it’s nice to see an upcoming filmmaker being so authentic. Cha Cha Real Smooth isn’t quite at the level of modern coming-of-age classics like Lady Bird (2017) or Booksmart (2019), but it comes close, and it’s almost aiming for a different feeling altogether. Bolstered by Johnson’s top-notch acting and Raiff’s sweet script, Cha Cha Real Smooth is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. 

USA | 2022 | 107 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writer & director: Cooper Raiff.
starring: Dakota Johnson, Cooper Raiff, Evan Assante, Vanessa Burghardt, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett & Raúl Castillo.