‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Sundance Review: Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson shine in a post-grad coming-of-age story with a lot of heart.

Director(s): Cooper Raiff

Writer(s): Cooper Raiff

Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Brad Garrett, Leslie Mann, Vanessa Burghardt

Cooper Raiff’s acting, writing, and directing debut Shithouse became an instant classic, and one of the best triple threats (acting, directing, and writing) there has been in some time. Shithouse is a college dramedy that was able to capture the feeling of isolation and anxiety college students face during their first year away from home. This film was completely low-budget (estimated at around $15,000), as there weren’t any major stars or large production. This allowed Raiff to not lean on anything else, and had to show his true talents as a triple threat, and people took notice as he won the SXSW Grand Jury award for this film. His follow up Cha Cha Real Smooth looks to follow in the footsteps of Raiff’s previous film, except with one major difference. The talent he is working with is full of household names, and after Cha Cha Real Smooth, I think Cooper Raiff will be one too.

Andrew, played by Cooper Raiff – who didn’t even want to star in this film until Dakota Johnson talked him into it – is a 22 year old college graduate who, like most recent college graduates, feels like the clock is ticking for them to make up their mind about their future. He works at a job he hates, moves back in with his brother (Evan Assante), mom (Leslie Mann), and step-dad (Brad Garrett), and his girlfriend is off in another country. When taking his brother to a friend’s Bar Mitzvah he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola, played beautifully by Vanessa Burghardt who is autistic herself.

As a recent college graduate who is aimlessly going day by day with no discernible idea for my future, this movie struck a chord with me, and Raiff’s writing cherishes these moments of longing and misunderstanding. Raiff – who is 24 himself – never speaks down to his generation and is able to tackle many heavy topics with grace and realism. It is funny, emotional, and most of all, honest. There are moments in this film that seem like they are going nowhere, but these small moments are what makes the bigger picture mean so much more. When you are in this part of life, it is like a spotlight is on you and everyone is constantly wondering what you’re going to do. You search for different outlets, and when none of them feel right, you pick one just to make people happy.

So when Andrew finds something that makes him feel like he has a purpose, in this case it is in the form of a single mom, he starts to feel like this will be the only thing that makes him happy. What I love so much about this movie is that Raiff is saying don’t have to search for happiness, let it come to you. Your life doesn’t have to be figured out, and your future doesn’t have to be set in stone. Many different changes are going to come throughout life, and it is best to live in the now instead of trying to live in the future.

Cooper Raiff’s directing is strong, but his acting is as phenomenal as his writing. Raiff is able to take the “nice guy” schtick and show that even the most engaging and seemingly happy people still feel lost. Andrew is quick to change his mind on things and whether it be a relationship or starting a business as a party coordinator, nothing sticks because nothing feels right. Raiff captures today’s young adults perfectly and the struggle they go through trying to truly figure themselves out for the first time. When he meets Domino and Lola he sees a future for himself. It is the first time he has ever felt like his life has a purpose and his desire to be what she needs is endearing. He is honest and emotional in a performance that could easily be one of the year’s best.

Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, is better than she has ever been. Just like Andrew is constantly looking to the future, Domino is consistently looking back. She had Lola when she was young – it is never clarified how young – and even though she wouldn’t change her life for anything, she has to live it feeling like a part is missing. Andrew teleports her to that world with endless possibilities . Johnson’s performance is subtle, but deeply affecting. She doesn’t know anything about Andrew, which for her is good because Andrew is everything she needs. Similar to Raiff, Johnson delivers her lines – some of them really difficult – with an intense level of honesty. Domino is experiencing a level of calmness that she has never felt before, and Johnson displays all of these subtle emotions with grace.

Stories like these are what truly remind me of the power of film. These little glimmers into the lives of other people that help show anyone watching, no matter how they are feeling, they aren’t alone in it. Cooper Raiff is a filmmaker for this generation as he understands the struggles and perplexities of what it means to grow up in this time; how everyone constantly tells you to be an adult, but no one reminds you to also be a kid. When this movie ended, I sat and reflected. I thought about my life, and the futile day-in and day-out of trying to figure out who I need to be versus who I want to be. I thought about Domino, and all of the time she missed having to grow up at such a young age, and being thrust into a life she never expected. And I thought about Andrew, still trying to figure out his place in the world, but still living his life one day at a time. This is a special movie, and one I am going to remember.

Cha Cha Real Smooth is undeniably brilliant. Cooper Raiff’s direction and performance are magnificent, but it’s his script that is truly immaculate. Raiff understands his characters like he’s known them forever. He effortlessly captures the malaise of post-grad life, reminding us that our future may not be what’s right in front of us, and Dakota Johnson quietly breaks our heart as someone longing for a time they lost. Charming, funny, and emotional, I just – I love this movie.

Grade: A+

2022 Film Rankings

Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.

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