Part of a series of movies I viewed at Sundance Film Festival 2022
I was floored by Cooper Raiff’s debut Shithouse. I called it “a documentary of my first year of college,” although there existed many more reasons for my high praise. Early into that film, I sensed he understood how to portray college flings that come, go, and often leave one person yearning for more. He wrote painfully honest dialog delivered in unglamorous yet riveting fashion.
As if Raiff couldn’t be more in-tuned with my senses, his sophomore effort, Cha Cha Real Smooth, opens with Lupe Fiasco’s infectious anthem “The Show Goes On.” This man ostensibly has a compass to my oh-so sensitive psyche, but his work resonates with his emphasis on the fundamentals of what makes dramedies impacting long after the credits roll. Including, but not limited to, rich characters, natural dialog, and a lot of affect.
Cha Cha Real Smooth begins with a 12-year-old boy named Andrew getting his first taste of what he believes is love. He’s at a party, and his eyes seldom leave a young, enthusiastic “party starter,” whom he later witnesses having a painful phone-call in the venue’s stairwell. She’s clearly received bad news. No less, she brushes her tears, summons a smile, and returns to her job — and crushes it. This compels the green tween to ask the significantly older woman on a date. She’s genuinely flattered, but she declines. “I’m old,” she plainly tells him. Cut to Andrew crying in the backseat of his mom’s car.
The son of a bipolar mother (Leslie Mann), whom he’s seen pick up the pieces of failed relationships far too many times, all he wants to do is form a serious connection. Moreover, he wants to help others start their own parties; he seeks to get them figuratively and literally dancing.
Flash-forward a decade, and the 22-year-old Andrew (Raiff) has just finished college, but can’t get his own party started. He wants to raise money to follow his sorta-girlfriend to Barcelona, although he’s unsure of how that will look. An unlikely side-hustle materializes when Andrew is forced to chaperone his younger brother David (Evan Assante) at a bat mitzvah party. Andrew successfully gets the whole room dancing, and by the end of the night, he’s got a flock of Jewish moms ready to hire him to bring the same energy to future mitzvahs.
The ace in the hole was Andrew lifting the spirits of two outcasts early into the evening. It all started when a beautiful but unhappy young mom named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) arrived. Wearing headphones and focused on a puzzle-cube, Lola was practically hellbent on not dancing. Until Andrew convinced her to. Domino is floored. She’s even more taken when Andrew aids her after a subsequent emergency at another party soon thereafter. Domino decides then that Andrew should be her daughter’s babysitter. Not only does he provide a hedge of protection, he permits her the rare agency as opposed to the common instinct of babying her.
Now, this is where Andrew and Domino should become lovers in their own right. Not so fast. Domino’s has a fiancé named Joseph (Raúl Castillo), who is on a work trip in Chicago. The two unlikely friends straddle a dangerous line of acceptable intimacy, both frequently tapdancing on the line of an affair.
Here’s part of what makes the 24-year-old Raiff so wise-beyond-his-years as a writer. Back at Domino’s house, after her aforementioned emergency, she climbs on top of Andrew and starts kissing him. Andrew pulls back his lips in seconds, voicing the perceptive notion that Domino doesn’t necessarily want to do this but feels she has to. He’s correct, and there’s as much admiration in her eyes as there is surprise in that moment. Raiff has exceptional talent for crafting intimate beats between two people, frequently employing low-lighting and forgoing the easy crutch for music entirely. He lets pregnant pauses, awkward silences, and rather hushed dialog take the lead. Realistically so.
Raiff doesn’t write himself as the infallible Prince Charming either. His response to some of Domino’s indecisive games is making the impulsive move to hook up with a classmate (Odeya Rush) he crushed on in high school. He’s also a heavy drinker, especially when working as a hype-man — clutching his water bottle with “VODKA” scribbled on it tighter and tighter as the night drones. He’s a sappy drunk, rekindling some of the angst and despair on which Shithouse was built. But Raiff’s Andrew is much more emotionally intelligent than Raiff’s Alex in that film. He doesn’t flee social interaction; he craves it. Too much, in fact.
At the end of it all, Andrew cannot get his own party started. A conversation between him and Lola gets to the root of his problem. He can’t be alone. He hasn’t embraced the art of living in solitude. As such, he spends his twenties forcing connections and seeking affirmation he can’t always get. He needs to learn to live and love himself — or at least forge a path — before embracing the idea of tending to the needs of a perpetually depressed mother and her very particular daughter.
Every character in Cha Cha Real Smooth is afforded development. As such, good performances run amok. Dakota Johnson turns in another outstanding, empathy-demanding performance proving she can have chemistry with just about any costar. Burghardt and Assante are afforded humanity thanks to their own developed subplots. The only soul who is slightly underused is Leslie Mann. In the moments in which she does anchor, Raiff highlights the dynamic only a mother and son can have.
Credit to Raiff for once more positing a sensitive male in an equally sensitive light. Again, he allows for male crying in a way that’s not played for laughs, but for the emotional gravity the ensuing situation warrants. It both follows the best scene between him and Johnson, and is followed by one of heartbreak: necessary heartbreak, but heartbreak no less.
Lastly, Cha Cha Real Smooth gets its title from DJ Casper’s dance-number “Cha Cha Slide,” still a staple at line-dance bars and parties. Never in my day did I think I’d see a fight scene in a movie play out to that particular song. I suppose the same way I never thought two movies with cringe-inducing titles could inspire two distinctive, emotionally refined works from a man who, by all accounts, is just getting started. Cooper Raiff, everyone. He’s here to stay.
Starring: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Vanessa Burghardt, Evan Assante, Leslie Mann, Raúl Castillo, Brad Garrett, and Odeya Rush. Directed by: Cooper Raiff.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!