With a promising start with his first film Shithouse for which he starred, directed and wrote and won the Grand Jury Narrative Prize at SXSW, Cooper Raiff looms now also to be one of the breakouts of this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Cha Cha Real Smooth, his small but splendid second film for which he performs the same triple threat duties debuted Sunday as part of the Dramatic Competition lineup. I can only imagine if the festival had managed to be in person as originally planned rather than virtual in this Omicron-stricken year it would be met with a massive standing ovation. Raiff is bound to become an indie darling as if further proof was needed, but Cha Cha Real Smooth cements him as the real deal both in front of and behind the camera.
In the wake of Ted Lasso hitting the zeitgeist by centering on a character in these dark times who is all about kindness and sweet likability, so too is Raiff’s Andrew, a genuinely nice and empathetic 22 year old who is bitten by the love bug and finds himself drawn to a somewhat broken 32 year old divorced mother of an autistic child. That character is Domino and she is played with real soul and heartbreak by Dakota Johnson (in the first of two movies at Sundance this year) who has never been as luminous on screen as she is here.
When we meet Andrew, it is in a flashback to his boyhood as he shows his romantic heart to an older woman his family has just had dinner with. Cut to present day and the now older Andrew is going about his job as a party starter for Bar Mitzvahs, an occupation for which he certainly has a knack even as he is trying to find his real calling in life and career. It is at one of those that his eye catches Domino and her autistic daughter Lola (a sterling debut for Vanessa Burghardt who is autistic in real life). There is something about them and the cosmic connection with Andrew is imminent. As he goes about his various Bar Mitzvah gigs he becomes close to them, sitting for Lola ever since Domino could see there was something different about this guy who clearly is sympatico with the young girl where many others aren’t. Andrew is a party starter on more than one level, waiting to get his own party started in life. He is a free spirited soulful young man in love with the idea of love who wears it on his sleeve. On the other hand Domino is a bit broken, and certainly tentative, whose husband and the father of Lola left them. This act has made her uber-cautious toward any emotional connection, sending her into depression and uncertainty even as she is now engaged to a lawyer (Raul Castillo) who spends much of his time on the job in Chicago. Andrew fills a void and slowly their friendship brings a uniquely bonded longing out of both even as the timing and their birthdates complicate matters, not to mention the fact she has a fiancee. We root for both of them, as well as Lola in what is an altogether poignant coming of age tale for all three.
Raiff is that rare talent, a charismatic presence on screen you want to hang with and an already clearly accomplished writer and director who delivers the essence of humanity and heart at every turn. He also really knows how to write women, as Johnson has a complex and tricky role to which she brings real authenticity and dimension. The always great, sometimes underrated Leslie Mann as Andrew’s bi-polar mom also has some wonderful scenes with Raiff that she socks home with all-knowing honesty. In a few moments you can see so much about their familial relationship, as we also get to experience between Andrew and his younger brother David at home where he still lives. David is played in pitch perfect style by Evan Assante, but all the actors feel just right here including Brad Garrett as the sometimes cranky father, and Odeya Rush as a casual girlfriend of Andrew’s.
This is the kind of feel-good character-driven independent movie that simply is best to just discover on your own and spread the word. I have no doubt that is what will happen after this Sundance debut where Cha Cha Real Smooth deserves to be a strong contender for awards to send it out into an ever-challenging marketplace for little gems like this one. Hopefully it finds a distributor to give it that tender loving care. It is a winner, and so is Cooper Raiff.
Producers in addition to Raiff and Johnson are Ro Donnelly, Jessice Switch , and Erik Feig. Feig’s Picturestart and Endeavor Content co-produced and co-financed it. WME and ICM Partners are handling sales.