Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022), directed and written by the film’s star Cooper Raiff, had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival in January. Sundance has been widely known as one of the few places for up-and-coming directors to find their spotlight—as well as for famed directors to continue shining. As the second film in Raiff’s career, Cha Cha Real Smooth was nominated for the “Grand Jury Prize”—the most prestigious award at the festival. It was also nominated for and ultimately won the “Audience Award,” putting it on everyone’s radar following the festival’s final curtain.
World-renowned directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, James Wan, and Steven Soderbergh all received their big breaks after entering the Sundance Festival as independent directors. Movies such as Donnie Darko, Reservoir Dogs, and Whiplash held their premieres at the festival and went on to have vast impacts on the film landscape. Simply put, Raiff’s achievement as a young filmmaker is critical to his career.
It is baffling to learn that Raiff is only 25 years old with two independent features already. Not only does he get the director credit for his films, but he is also responsible for writing and playing the lead roles. Both of his films—Cha Cha Real Smooth and Shithouse (2020)—deal with struggles that are extremely close to the hearts of young adults. With his inspiring messages, you can’t help but constantly be excited for what Raiff does next.
Cha Cha Real Smooth follows recent-university graduate Andrew (Cooper Raiff) as he navigates life in the adult world. His long-time girlfriend Maya (Amara Pedroso) takes a trip to Barcelona as part of “Fulbright”—an exchange program to help students learn more about cultures outside of the United States. The distance between them creates rifts in trust, manifesting in more stress for Andrew as he has a hard time finding a job in his field. What once was a relationship he felt would end up in marriage results in a painfully single post-graduate summer. Working part-time and living with his mother (Leslie Mann) and stepfather (Brad Garrett), there seems to be no outlet for Andrew’s frustrations—until he joins his brother at a bat mitzvah.
At this bat mitzvah, Andrew meets his brother’s friend Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) and her mother Domino (Dakota Johnson)—a duo to which he instantly feels a connection. Andrew finds himself falling for Domino, despite her being almost a decade older than him. As he becomes more comfortable and engaged at the party, he lands himself a gig as a party-starter for bar and bat mitzvahs across the community. Once he confesses his feelings for Domino, other issues quickly arise.
The plot is simple, but its execution is unique. What makes this film so great is the charm that Raiff has as he plays Andrew. His interactions with everyone in the film feel so realistic, and he almost blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Raiff manages to build an environment that makes the viewer feel like a fly on the wall—rather than a witness to a script—during each conversation. From sudden heartbreak that feels incomprehensible to going for countless job interviews and not hearing back from anyone, the film depicts real-life issues that relate to young adults.
As much as we neglect the positivity in life, Cha Cha Real Smooth provides us with the flashlight we need to see through the darkness. Like a warm hug on a cold night, Raiff sends a necessary reminder: appreciating the little things can do wonders for the soul. Navigating through life means there will be ups and downs, and we just have to take a second to realize the real reason we’re all here—to live.