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Life of the party – ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

June 20, 2022
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It has never been easier to create. It used to be that access to the necessary tools to make movies was out of reach to most, but now, technological advances have largely democratized that access. However, just because you can make something doesn’t mean you have the means to ensure it is seen. If anything, this new level of access just means that there’s a whole lot more noise from which you have to separate the signal of quality work.

On the other hand, there’s someone like Cooper Raiff, who seems to have basically sprung forth fully formed as a filmmaker. He’s still young, but hey – when you’re in your mid-20s and have already crushed Sundance twice, you’re doing something right.

Raiff’s latest triumph is “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” currently available for streaming on Apple TV+; the streamer bought the distribution rights for the film out of Sundance (where it won the Audience Award) for $15 million. Raiff wrote and directed and, oh yeah, stars in the film, the story of an aimless recent college graduate whose side hustle hyping up bar mitzvahs leads him into some unconventional relationships.

Equal parts sweet and sharp, it’s a well-crafted portrait of a young man trying to figure out just what it is he wants from the world even as he struggles. He’s adrift and looking for some kind, any kind of connection. It is funny and poignant, radiant with goofball energy and offbeat sincerity, a compelling look at what happens next when you don’t know what happens next.

Andrew (Cooper Raiff) has just graduated college and has moved back home to live with his mother (Leslie Mann) and his stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett); he’s sharing a room with his decade-younger brother David (Evan Assante) and working at a Meat Sticks kiosk, all while hoping to save up enough cash to go to Barcelona to see his Fulbright Scholar girlfriend Maya (Amara Saquel).

One night, David asks Andrew to go with him to an acquaintance’s bar mitzvah. It is there that Andrew discovers a potential calling – he manages to invigorate the crowd so utterly that a group of other mothers descend on him asking to hire him to hype up the guests at the bar and bat mitzvahs of their own children. It is also when he first meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), piquing Domino’s interest when he gets the usually reluctant Lola to hit the dance floor.

His party facilitation career gets off to a rocky start, with plenty of ups and downs – usually involving Andrew’s disdain for bullies and bullying. He also starts to grow closer to Domino and Lola, even as he finds out that Domino has a fiancé, a lawyer named Joseph (Raul Castillo). Meanwhile, Andrew is trying to advise his younger brother regarding girls while also dealing with his creeping suspicion that Maya may have moved on from their relationship.

When Andrew starts to spiral, he can’t seem to figure out just what it is that he wants, projecting his desires and insecurities onto the people around him. Questionable choices follow as he struggles to navigate the maze of his own making, all while also trying to energize kids’ parties on the regular. But when it comes down to doing what’s right, he’ll discover that he does have people on his side – even if what they tell him isn’t what he wants to hear.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” would be an impressive enough accomplishment for any filmmaker, but for one so young, it’s a real triumph. Raiff is a legitimate triple threat. His directorial eye, while still somewhat raw, is sharp and clear – he’s got real talent for visual storytelling and drawing out evocative performances from actors. As a performer, he has loads of natural charisma and an underlying vulnerability that makes him appealing, even when he’s playing a flawed character. And his screenwriting talents may be the most significant of the three; he has a real knack for writing young people with depth and nuance, mining pathos not just from the major stuff, but from the mundane as well. Put it all together and it’s no wonder that plenty of industry folks want to be in the Cooper Raiff business.

This film is a wonderful character study, an examination of a young man reeling into adulthood without any real notion of what to do now that he’s here. There’s a universality to that directionlessness that makes the story relatable – we’ve all been at a loss as to what to do next. And by couching it in this wonderful juxtaposition of a guy who can’t grow up hyping up parties intended as symbolic transitions to adulthood, I mean … *chef’s kiss.”

The performances are excellent as well. We’ve talked about Raiff, who carries much of the load, but the rest of the ensemble is top-notch. Johnson is wonderful as Domino, this complex and damaged woman who is nevertheless finding her way forward. Burghardt is note-perfect as Lola. As for Andrew’s family unit, Mann is great as the supportive, slightly scattered mother. Garrett is exquisitely gruff as Stepdad Greg. And the dynamic between Raiff and Assante as David is simply outstanding; the fraternal energy is off the charts, leaving us with no doubt about the sheer power of their brotherly love.

Put it all together and you’ve got one heck of a movie. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is an outstanding sophomore effort from Cooper Raiff. Despite wearing three very heavy hats, he excels in all three aspects. Sure, there are some flaws, some imperfections, but the mere fact that someone this young is making work this good this soon is incredibly impressive.

I said it after his debut feature “S—those” and I’m saying it now – expect Cooper Raiff’s star to keep shining brighter and brighter.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:39

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