Cooper Raiff announced a strong presence in the indie film scene in 2020 with his breakout debut “Shithouse.” Made on a mere $15,000 budget, it was enough to garner the attention of one Dakota Johnson, who produced and stars in Raiff’s latest outing, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” for which Raiff won not only an Audience Award out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but also a $15 million distribution deal with Apple TV+. The film may not be enough to get everyone to clap their hands like its title-inspiring song, but it might be enough to get you to bob your head with the beat.
Just looking at the synopsis, it wouldn’t be hard to see why “Real Smooth” would win such an award and garner such a substantial distribution deal — the film follows Andrew, played here by Raiff himself, whose work as a bat mitzvah party-starter leads him to develop a relationship between a mother named Domino, played by Dakota Johnson, and her autistic daughter Lola, played by a magnificent Vanessa Burghardt. It’s a feel-good film with all the pieces to make you laugh, cry and contemplate your own relationships.
Raiff maintains his status as writer, director and actor as he did in his debut feature, but whereas in “Shithouse,” Raiff’s many hats could have been perceived as a budgetary restraint, in “Real Smooth” it feels far more intentional. He mostly avoids the pitfalls of starring in a film you also wrote and directed, never quite reaching Vincent Gallo heights of self-aggrandizement and self-insertion, but the film certainly still has its moments.
These moments mostly come from the interactions between Domino and Andrew. Johnson’s performance is commendable, but her whispery vocal delivery throughout the film reminds the audience at every moment that she is utterly infatuated with Andrew. Not only that, but the script takes as many opportunities as possible to remind us, and perhaps Raiff himself, that Andrew is the absolute sweetest man on planet Earth and there is no one as nice and as kind as him.
This wouldn’t be terribly detrimental if it weren’t for Domino and Andrew’s romance being so haphazard. The opening scene of the film shows a 12-year-old Andrew proclaiming his love for a much older dance-leader at a bat mitzvah. The only real purpose of this scene is to establish that Andrew is into older women, a concept that is preposterous but, frankly, quite funny. The only issue is that the relationship that develops between Domino and Andrew is almost entirely dependent on this singular idea, creating an unconvincing romance.
The relationship between Andrew and Lola does a majority of the heavy lifting in making Domino and Andrew’s relationship feel more believable. Raiff and Burghardt ensure that Lola is never infantilized and that her autism is not her only identifiable character trait. Their character’s interactions are some of the most comforting moments in the whole film and help justify Domino’s attraction to Andrew. When Domino throws endless praise at Andrew for being so sweet to Lola, however, it stifles any sincerity in the film.
Thus lies the heart of my issues with “Cha Cha Real Smooth:” there was never a moment in this film where I didn’t find myself questioning whether Raiff was creating something genuinely good or just something that made him feel better about himself. I could never separate the man from the character. Raiff never establishes a confidence in his audience to trust that he is making the film for reasons other than to give himself some sort of ego boost.
When the credits did finally roll, I still found myself wiping water away from my eyes; Raiff has certainly demonstrated a talent for creating heartfelt and comforting stories that focus more on making the audience appreciate what they have rather than making them long for what they don’t. It would be nice to see Raiff get out of his own way and demonstrate his talents strictly behind the camera, lest he become some unfavorable creator whose screen or stage presence we start to find generally disagreeable. I’m looking at you, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
John Scott is the editor-in-chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JScott050901