If Shithouse was an appetizer for the talents of Cooper Raiff, we now have the main course. With Cha Cha Real Smooth, one of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s most buzzed about titles, Raiff has cemented himself as a storyteller of some note. Not only is this movie incredibly charming, it crafts one of the most well developed cinematic characters of the year so far. The film is funny, moving, and always feels real. This is very much the type of independent cinema that Sundance is known for having cross over into the mainstream. With any luck, this flick will be the latest festival favorite to go on to bigger things. I absolutely loved it and have a hunch that you will too.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is so genuinely moving, it feels like something more autobiographical than it likely is. It’s a credit to Raiff’s work both behind and in front of the camera that you get so instantly invested. This isn’t just true of his protagonist, either. Every supporting character is drawn so deftly they could have their own films and be just as interesting. You’ll truly want to live in this cinematic world for longer than he lets us, and that’s a rare compliment.
Andrew (Raiff) is 22 and just out of college, unsure of who he is or what his place in the world might be. For the moment, that means living back at home with his mother (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante). It also means menial labor, at least until he can find something better. That idea, to use his college partying skills and work as a party-starter at the bar/bat mitzvahs of David’s classmates, puts him directly into contact with two people who may well change his life.
Those individuals are David’s autistic classmate Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her young mom Domino (Dakota Johnson). Connecting deeply with them both, he befriends the women. Of course, being a confused and hopeless romantic, he also begins falling in love with Domino. Dealing with those feelings, while trying to figure out his life, becomes his primary concern, with supremely charming and moving results.
Not only is Cooper Raiff excellent in the lead role (more on his writing and directing next), Dakota Johnson is terrific as well. They have good chemistry with each other, while adding unexpected layers to both of their characters. Johnson and Raiff deliver performances that you’ll swoon over. You fully will never want to stop spending time with them. Evan Assante and Vanessa Burghardt could easily have been the leads of their own movies, that’s how well drawn their roles are. Burghardt especially is a highlight. While Brad Garrett and Leslie Mann have smaller roles, they more than make the most of it. In addition to the supporting players already mentioned, the cast includes Raúl Castillo and Odeya Rush, both of which are also very solid.
Raiff’s filmmaking is not overly stylish, but it’s incredibly confident, perceptive, and goes down smoothly. Avoiding cliches but playing in familiar territory, the writer and director not just paves a new path, but does so with a smile on his face. He obviously delivers something special in front of the camera, but the behind the camera work is maybe even better.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is one of the best movies at Sundance this year. It’s also one of the top films of 2022 so far, overall. Whenever this one comes out, it’s an absolute must see. Cooper Raiff is going to be an A-list filmmaker, mark my words. This flick is just another hint at what’s to come. I can’t wait for everyone to find out about this remarkable project.