Cooper Raiff is a goddamned star.
You see it within minutes of Cha Cha Real Smooth, which he also directed and wrote. His face draws you in with sparkling eyes and a smile that recalls Risky Business-era Tom Cruise. Unlike the screen legend, he tempers that gleaming countenance with self-deprecating humor that makes him even more inviting. You want to see him again, cheer him up, and give him a hug when the weight of the world hits him.
With Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff crafts a perfect vehicle for those strengths. He plays Andrew, a college graduate stuck at home in a dead-end job with no real prospects. After escorting his brother to a bat mitzvah and impressing everyone with his infectious energy, he becomes the “party starter” for the community. At the bat mitzvah, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), mother to the autistic teenager Lola. Their friendship has evident romantic tension, but there are complications, the most significantly their age difference and divergent life paths.
Cha Cha Real Smooth bears similarities to another complicated coming-of-age tale, the Oscar-nominated Licorice Pizza. Both films speak to the restlessness of youth and how it quickly leads to romanticizing the improbable or the problematic. Raiff’s take on the dynamic is surprisingly mature and measured. His film brims with positivity, but it also resists and subverts the “against all odds” trope. He shows why a doomed romance would appeal to an aimless Gen Zer, and why youthful goodness would appeal to a young mother terrified of commitment. Cha Cha Real Smooth also pushes back, choosing a path that is messier, sadder, and more profound.
Raiff’s path to the truth of the perils of youthful fantasy is paved with heartfelt humor. Cha Cha Real Smooth is very funny, parroting in awkward situational comedy that makes you equally smile and cringe. The jokes are sharp, but the tightness of the comic timing makes the whole film sing. Raiff is economical and generous with his script, giving every character a moment in the comic spotlight. He doesn’t shy away from finding humor in tough subjects, like mental illness and neurodivergence. However, he doesn’t punch down or go for cheap laughs. The comedy is smarter than that. The humor is based in genuine exchanges and conversations, affording grace and humanity to its characters.
Raiff has a clear and self-assured point of view that comes across strongly in his direction and writing. The first two-thirds are well-paced and structured. He knows how and where to cut a scene to heighten the comedy and when to incorporate the excellent soundtrack to enhance a moment. (Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” is one of the year’s best needle drops.)
However, there are times when his point of view can skew overindulgent. The third act struggles most with that balance. The final stretch has several scenes that could’ve served as the ending, but the film cycles back to a character or narrative beat that seemed resolved. The moments work individually – nothing in Cha Cha rings false – but you start to wonder when the gentle heartbreak and quietly beautiful maturity will give way to resolution.
It’s hard to point to a moment that should’ve been cut because each one is powerfully written and performed. I already discussed Cooper Raiff’s performance, but it is worth repeating. He is a star, and he gives a star-making performance here. Given his deep involvement behind the scenes, the power of his screen presence is astonishing. Comedy is his bag, but Raiff is equally compelling at drama, with those bright eyes conveying vulnerability and warmth.
Raiff surrounds himself with an excellent cast. Dakota Johnson borrows the mysterious shades she cultivated for The Lost Daughter in service of a character desperately seeking the abandon she gave up to raise a child. Vanessa Burghardt is great as Lola, evading caricature for a thoughtful portrayal of neurodivergence. As Andrew’s mother living with bipolar disorder, the brilliant Leslie Mann threads her performance with simmering energy that could engulf her at the wrong moment.
But it all comes back to Cooper Raiff. Cha Cha Real Smooth is the revelation of an extraordinary, exciting talent, whose rejection of cynicism doesn’t ignore life’s complexities, nuances, and messiness. The film feels incredibly good but doesn’t ignore what feels bad. It’s a balance that several directors with years more experience struggle with. That Raiff, still early in his career, manages it with such thoughtfulness and care is a sight to behold. If he can keep that perspective and build upon it with future projects and challenges, there is no limit to what he can achieve.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is in select theaters and streams on Apple TV+.