CHICAGO - Timing is everything. It’s a sentiment 25-year-old writer/actor/director Cooper Raiff knows all too well. His debut feature "S#!%house" switched to a virtual premiere in the early weeks of the pandemic. ("The whole experience was in my pajamas," Raiff told FOX Television Stations of the film’s release, which won Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival). Then his sophomore feature, "Cha Cha Real Smooth," had to swap its planned in-person premiere for a virtual one too, as the 2022 Sundance Film Festival adjusted for the Omicron variant. Still, considering they’re both earnest romantic dramedies about timing, chance and the ineffable magic of connection, maybe there’s something thematically fitting about their winding path to success.
Indeed, as in the best coming-of-age romances, everything seems to have worked out in the end. "Cha Cha Real Smooth" received glowing reviews at Sundance, won the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic category and was quickly scooped up by Apple TV+ for an impressive $15 million. Now it’s set to hit the streaming service — as well as select theaters — on June 17.
Finally seeing the film with an audience has been "so special," Raiff told FOX Television Stations after a screening at the Chicago Critics Film Festival in May. "It’s the reason why you make movies," Raiff explained. "To see them with people."
Raiff stars in "Cha Cha Real Smooth" as Andrew, a 22-year-old recent college grad struggling to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He moves back home with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) and quickly falls into a makeshift job as a "party starter" at the bar and bat mitzvahs his kid brother David (Evan Assante) attends nearly every weekend. That’s where Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a beguiling young mom with a thoughtful, autistic daughter named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Though Domino isn’t exactly on the market, sparks soon begin to fly between her and Andrew anyway. And "Cha Cha Real Smooth" tells a gorgeously sensitive, sneakily complex story about growing up at every stage of life.
Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
"Domino was the first thing that I started with," Raiff explained of crafting the script. "The first nugget of the movie. [She’s] this mother of a disabled kid whose life has been defined by her kid’s stages — and will be forever. And it was very interesting to me to have her meet someone who was at a stage in life that she did not get to have. And for [Andrew] to give her some life and some moments of security."
While "Cha Cha Real Smooth" has many of the trappings of an indie romance, its emotional arc is a little more complicated than your average rom-com. Though Raiff shares many qualities with Andrew — including a warm relationship with his mom and a big age gap with his younger sibling — he intentionally set out to write a flawed leading man. "I don’t love anything about that guy," Raiff joked when asked to name what he liked most about his character. "Andrew’s whole thing is asking questions and getting to know someone... It just shows this lack of a center and this kind of intense desire to connect and dive into someone else’s world."
In other words, Andrew’s charming outward empathy hides just how much interior work he still has to do, which he eventually comes to realize over the course of the film. "I love where he’s headed," Raiff acknowledged. "I love that he gets to a place where he’s, like, ‘I don’t have any sense of self and I’m gonna try to find that.’"
Given how many hats Raiff had to wear as an actor, writer and director, he’s also quick to credit Dakota Johnson as a crucial collaborator on the film, going so far as to call her his "ghost director." She pushed him to give Andrew and Domino’s conversational scenes more interesting blocking, which led to one memorable sequence built around ice pops. When they needed to figure out how to adjust a scripted moment of physical intimacy, they came up with the idea mid-scene. "We were very in sync," Raiff explained. "We developed the movie together, she was there from day one. So it was always both of our stories."
Vanessa Burghardt and Dakota Johnson in "Cha Cha Real Smooth," premiering June 17, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Raiff speaks with equal affection for all of his co-stars, from veteran actors like Leslie Mann to newcomers like Vanessa Burghardt. It’s a feeling of warmth that seems to fuel his entire creative process — from writing characters he adores ("I love everything about them") to working with his actors to figure out how to marry their own personalities to the characters they’re playing. To help them "do what they do best," as he puts it. It all comes down to finding the "smartest, funniest, most dangerous version of that marriage."
And though Raiff isn’t so sure he’d make a good party starter in real life (he’s much less of a pure extrovert than Andrew), he did come to realize that "directing is just like party starting.... So it was easy to be a party starter on set."
You can watch the full interview above.
For another coming-of-age love story, try: "Beyond the Lights," streaming free on Tubi
Beyond The Lights (2014): This achingly beautiful coming-of-age romance about a pop star named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an ode to setting boundaries and not letting anyone control you — even the people who raised you. Themes of creative identity, mental heath, sexism in the music industry, romantic partnership and family pressure take center stage in this hidden gem of a movie from "Love & Basketball" director Gina Prince-Bythewood. Rated PG-13. 116 minutes. Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood. Also featuring Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover.
How to watch "Cha Cha Real Smooth"
"Cha Cha Real Smooth" will be available in select theaters and streaming on Apple TV+ starting June 17.
About the writer: Caroline Siede is a film and TV critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, she spent four years lovingly analyzing the romantic comedy genre one film at a time in her column When Romance Met Comedy for The A.V. Club. She also co-hosts the movie podcast, Role Calling, and shares her pop culture opinions on Twitter (@carolinesiede).
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