[Sundance 2022] CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH -- Cooper Raiff Returns with an Extraordinary, Relatable Second Feature
Review by Sean Boelman
Cooper Raiff’s directorial debut Shithouse seemed like it captured lightning in a bottle, a relatable romantic comedy with its finger on the pulse of what young people are feeling right now. His sophomore feature Cha Cha Real Smooth proves that he is maybe the best young voice in filmmaking today, an equally compelling film at a larger scale.
The film follows an aimless young man who is struggling to find his way fresh out of college, as he finds a job as a Mitzvah party host and forms a bond with a mother and her autistic daughter. For a film that has so many subplots, Raiff manages to make everything feel fully developed, which is part of what makes it so charming.
The script is impeccably paced, finding a wonderful balance between its humor and its more sentimental moments. The film hooks the viewer with light and airy comedy before reeling the film in with the final act that is equal parts heartwarming and soul-crushing. And even though the film’s plot starts to seem a bit maudlin at times, Raiff reins it in by basing it in honest emotion.
Ultimately, the themes that are explored in the film are nothing new, but Raiff brings such an authentic voice to it that it feels fresh and original. Few filmmakers as young as Raiff have gotten the opportunity to work at this scale yet, and so other young people will likely feel a deep empathy with what he has written.
The film also subverts a lot of expectations when it comes to character archetypes. The protagonist starts out as an aimless, lovesick college graduate trying to find his way in life, but it soon becomes clear that this film isn’t about him trying to grow up — it’s about him realizing that he already has. The co-lead is equally unorthodox, not a manic pixie dream girl by any means.
Like Shithouse, Raiff also acts in the lead role in this film, and that is what makes a lot of it feel so personal. His chemistry with Dakota Johnson is exceptional, and Johnson is doing some career-best work, with an extraordinary amount of vulnerability. Also noteworthy is Vanessa Burghardt, whose performance should be a breakout.
This production definitely had more money at its disposal than Raiff’s first, and so it feels much more like a traditional studio comedy. That said, there are a few touches that give it a nice sense of style. Raiff shows a developing talent for sight gags, with a few really funny ones set up. And the soundtrack is filled with some great song choices that give it a distinctly youthful feel.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is one of the most personal, intimate things to have come out of this year’s Sundance. After an already great debut, Raiff has shown that he still has plenty yet to say in his career.
Cha Cha Real Smooth screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.