I suppose there are some people who might have an allergic reaction to the comfortably uncool movies of Cooper Raiff — some people who might stiffen up whenever his low-key indie charmers offer a supportive hug and remind you that we’re all just doing our best — but every life-sized beat of the 24-year-old’s first two features has struck me as wry and true in a way that makes the stories around them feel all the more honest for their empathy. If that would be a promising start under any circumstances, it’s an especially nifty magic trick at a time when the world is fucked to a degree that anything nice seems like it must be lying to you somehow.
Drawing from Richard Linklater and mentored by Jay Duplass, Raiff’s SXSW-winning “Shithouse” is the softest rom-com you’ll ever see about a homesick college freshman who can’t understand how the rest of his classmates are having such a good time, and yet it so warmly radiates the same vulnerability that was required to make it that even its broadest moments feel as raw as memories. With his winsome sophomore effort “Cha Cha Real Smooth” — another effortlessly funny and endlessly forgiving mash note to anyone who’s struggled to reconcile the life they got with the one they imagined for themselves — Raiff scales up the disarming earnestness of his debut without losing any of its DIY intimacy.
As a fun bonus, Raiff’s second feature even triples down on the proud “Shithouse” tradition of movie titles that are impossible to say out loud without experiencing some mild physical discomfort. In this case, it’s a shout out to DJ Casper’s 2000 party anthem “Cha Cha Slide,” a staple at the bar and bat mitzvahs that even goys like Raiff were forced to attend on a weekly basis when they were in junior high. They were extremely formative events for the character he plays here, who we first meet as a 12-year-old who falls in love with one of the party starters hired to whip up a Hora so frenzied that your bubby and zayde seem like they’re about to light the Wicker Man on fire.
Andrew’s sequined crush is perfectly cute, but it’s not her looks that inspire our little man-in-training, it’s that he spies her having a very serious phone call on a break before returning to the dance floor with a professional smile on her face as if nothing had happened. As the child of a bipolar mom (a wonderful but somewhat underutilized Leslie Mann) whose instability will soon prove too much for her husband, Andrew feels a nascent calling to protect older women from a world that’s happy to leave them behind at the first inconvenience.
That the party starter is able to compartmentalize her pain in order to lift everyone else’s spirits only leaves Andrew all the more enchanted. Solving our own shit can be so complicated that most of us give up along the way, but recognizing what another person needs from the world, even if just in that moment, can be so obvious that it makes you feel like you have X-ray vision. Tweenage Andrew won’t get to save the twentysomething party starter he meets that fateful night (we’ve had “Licorice Pizza” discourse for one lifetime, thank you very much), but consciously or not, he’ll always carry her in his heart.
When the movie catches up with him 10 years later, Andrew is a newly minted college grad who’s so invested in everyone else’s lives that he hasn’t given any thought to what he might do with his own. He works at a fast food joint called “Meat Sticks” because he devotes so much energy towards compensating for his awkward step-dad (Brad Garrett) and looking out for his little brother David (Evan Assante) that it might as well be a full-time job. Of course, Andrew might be the only one who doesn’t see that, just as he’s the only who doesn’t understand that his Barcelona-bound girlfriend isn’t coming back. It’s only after he accompanies David to a lame bar mitzvah — and single-handedly rescues it from the DJ, to the slightly predatory delight of every Jewish mom in suburban New Jersey — that Andrew considers how life may have paved the way towards his own career as a party starter.
But there’s something unmistakably shark-like about Andrew’s extroverted need to make people happy. At the risk of making a grounded movie “Cha Cha Real Smooth” sound like a high-concept Jim Carrey comedy from back in the day, you almost get the sense that Andrew will die if he doesn’t put a smile on someone’s face every 90 minutes. Raiff’s approach is so unfussy that his film also manages to reject any hint of the “home again” tweeness that’s become endemic to stories located in “Garden State” territory, a degree of restraint that becomes all the more impressive when Andrew starts fixating on a gorgeous older woman who seems like she could use a little help.
Played by a mesmeric and utterly believable Dakota Johnson (hot off “The Lost Daughter” and just so damn good at playing ambivalent moms who keep the world at arm’s length from behind the two-way mirror of their own beauty), Domino is far too powerful to be confused for a damsel in distress, but a gorgeous and possibly single 29-year-old with an adorable 12-year-old autistic kid might as well be a zillion-watt lighthouse in the middle of a white squall to someone like Andrew. I mean, anyone would be excited to meet someone who can actually pull off the name “Domino” in real life, but Andrew is dead in the water from the drop.
Played by terrifically endearing newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, whose authentic neurodivergence lends a needed veneer of realism to a movie about meeting Dakota Johnson at a bar mitzvah, Domino’s daughter Lola is used to being ignored and/or bullied at parties, and so Andrew’s eagerness to engage with her is enough to spark an unexpected friendship with her mom. He starts babysitting for Lola when the opportunity strikes, and finds himself sharing a few late nights alone with Domino as a result.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a film as conflict-avoidant as any of its characters, and Raiff maintains the static naturalism on which he built “Shithouse” even in the presence of bonafide stars who might lead audiences to have more dramatic expectations. But sexual tension can be the greatest special effect in the world in a movie that knows how to use it, and the process of figuring out what Andrew and Domino want from each other is more than enough to give this featherlight movie a pulse.
There’s a palpable charge between them, and yet they’re also being repelled by the magnetic force of two souls who are so defined by taking care of other people that they have absolutely no idea what to do in a situation where they both need something for themselves. The scenes between Raiff and Johnson vibe off the “will they or won’t they?” tension of a well-written rom-com, but they draw an even more compelling power from the friction between “do they want to or not?.” What good would a romance be to Andrew if it distracted him from the thrill of helping Domino with Lola? What good would it be to Domino if it severely complicated her mission to be the best possible mom? These may not seem like such difficult questions, but when you’re lucky enough to meet a soulmate in life, there’s a natural desire to seal that connection with a kiss.
In less hands, this material could easily devolve into an absolute orgy of cringe, but Raiff infuses such legible emotional honesty into every scene that “Cha Cha Real Smooth” becomes as comfortable to watch as Andrew is to know (it’s telling that one of the movie’s funniest moments comes when Andrew does a spectacularly bad job of telling a lie). The writer-director’s range as an actor has yet to be tested, but no one more completely embodies the wide-eyed vulnerability of a wayward twentysomething who was born without the filter that keeps most of us at a slight remove from the rest of the world.
Much like “Shithouse,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth” recognizes how that can be a double-edged sword, and most of the bigger swings that Raiff’s new movie takes with it manage to hit their target. Better yet, they often strengthen each other, as the “Jerry Maguire” dynamic that takes root one minute is made that much sweeter by an Apatow-worthy sight gag about a cum-filled condom in the next (for example). It’s the kind of movie where the best jokes turn out not to be jokes at all.
If the whole thing still feels awfully slight even in the context of a Sundance movie — so unforced that you half expect it to fall out of orbit at any second — it’s nice to see a young filmmaker bring the stars to him instead of straining to reach their level. This is a story about two people lost in the same limbo at very different points in their lives (or four people, if you count David and Lola), and it’s made all the more affecting because Raiff has the patience and maturity to let his characters map their own way forward. Doing that is his gift to Andrew and Domino; it’s what finally might allow them to do something for themselves.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.