Sundance: Raiff’s ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’ Shines, Wins Audience Award


Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in the Sundance award-winning film “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

By Hannah Keating, Arts Editor


Filmmaker Cooper Raiff makes his Sundance debut directing, producing, writing and acting in his feature “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Largely considered a fan-favorite of the festival, winning an Audience Award win in the U.S. Dramatic film category, and with Apple recently securing the rights in a $15 million deal, this heartfelt and endlessly witty dramedy speaks to anyone who feels perched on the precipice of adulthood.

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Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college graduate now living with his parents and younger brother David (Evan Assante) in New Jersey. After chaperoning David to his classmates’ bar mitzvah parties, he is hired by the Jewish mothers as a party starter. Attending and hyping up these parties, he meets and befriends Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), beginning to “babysit” Lola and fall for Domino.

It’s fitting that “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is Raiff’s sophomore festival feature. As opposed to the lonely college freshman he plays in his SXSW debut “Shithouse” — another film he wrote, directed, produced and starred in — “Cha Cha Real Smooth” digs into this lost, post-break-up, post-college 22 year-old trying to figure himself out, all while sleeping on the floor of his tween brother’s room.

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Raiff and Johnson shine in the leads. Their chemistry is effortless, fluctuating between friendship and infatuation as Andrew and Domino are drawn to one another’s company. The cast is fleshed out in Assante and Burghardt, who only contribute to the film’s awkward and unlikely relationships. 

Out of any film I’ve seen in a long time, the dialogue in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” stands out. It’s natural, easy and sickeningly charming, as Andrew and Domino stumble over each other’s words in a dance of light flirtation and deep connection. I stopped several times to skip back 10 seconds, hoping that on second pass, the film’s humor and personality would land again and again. It did.

Take It Back Now, Y’all

That’s the other thing that grabbed me about “Cha Cha Real Smooth” — its familiarity. Not only does Andrew’s situation feel familiar, as he stares down the barrel of the paralyzing freedom following college while aching to feel settled and loved, but the aesthetic feels achingly collegiate. We see Andrew sleep on a blow-up mattress on the floor, work in the mall at a “Meat Sticks” kiosk, hit up an old high school friend Macy (Odeya Rush) and sit on his stepdad’s kitchen counter to eat his late-night bowl of cereal. Even in something so small as Andrew wearing a short-sleeve, button-up shirt untucked in the back as he knocks 13-year-old bullies down a peg on the bar mitzvah dance floor, Raiff’s creative work effortlessly encapsulates the film’s dance between aimlessness and directionality.

In the end, despite his puppy love, Andrew doesn’t land somewhere stable, instead being set free in a way to “do his twenties.” Like Raiff describes in a interview for Variety, “Cha Cha” is not just a coming-of-age story for Andrew at 22, but for 12 year-old David and 32-year-old Domino. Everyone in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is trying to find their footing, and it makes the film so human.


Even in its heartbreak, the film is characterized with this sense of charm and humor that made me laugh and cry all at once. It proves that Raiff is a cinematic force to be reckoned with, and I can’t wait to see that again when “Cha Cha Real Smooth” hits streaming platforms.


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