You might not know Cooper Raiff, but you still know him. Like Zach Braff and Bo Burnham before him, he's that floppy half-grown puppy of a guy — anxious, adorable, a little bit insufferable — caught somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, and too full of feelings for his own good. As a filmmaker, he's also a one-man band, though one whose output seems uniquely cursed by the pandemic: His 2020 feature debut, Shithouse, bowed at a suddenly-online SXSW just as the first wave of COVID hit, and now his second, Cha Cha Real Smooth, premieres at another festival gone abruptly virtual.
Still, Cha Cha — which, like last year's feel-good Sundance breakout–turned–surprise Best Picture winner CODA, has already been snapped up by Apple TV+ — may be one of the most commercially viable projects to come out of it: a smartly constructed, amiably appealing coming-of-age zhuzhed up with mainstream marquee names (Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann) and enough sharp edges to transcend the more familiar outlines of the script.
Raiff writes, directs, and stars as Andrew, a freshly minted Tulane graduate whose inglorious post-college plans include moving back in with his mother (Mann) and her peevish boyfriend (Brad Garrett) in New Jersey, getting a job at the local Meat Sticks, and watching his Fulbright Scholar girlfriend quickly learn to forget him in Barcelona. But accompanying his baby brother (Evan Assante) to a bat mitzvah turns into an unexpected career opportunity when his gift for getting awkward adolescents on the dance floor doesn't go unnoticed.
Sundance Institute Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in 'Cha Cha Real Smoth'
Andrew is already busy doing his own noticing — honing in on the lovely, lonely Domino (Johnson), a fellow guest whose autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) he forms an easy bond with. Playing land-bound cruise director to a bunch of hormonal 13-year-olds becomes immediately more appealing with the prospect of Domino's presence, though being a professional party starter turns out to be more fraught than he imagined (good things rarely start with a scrum of overwrought parents and an open bar).
So does befriending Domino, whom Johnson plays with wistful, big-eyed allure; she's like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl without the mania, and Andrew falls hard despite her clear complications and age-appropriate fiancé (Raul Castillo). A lot of the movie depends on their bittersweet chemistry, and his tender platonic connection with Mann too. But it's still on Raiff to carry pretty much every scene, regardless of his partner — a task he wears lightly, allowing Andrew to be both a scruffy hyper-literate charmer and a self-sabotaging wreck. He's also a singularly Gen-Z kind of hero, so constantly emotionally attuned that he makes the older people around him seem like Mad Men anachronisms. In that sense, Cha Cha feels like both a fitting showcase for a young auteur like Raiff and a larger marker of how much movie masculinity has evolved: a real-smooth manifesto for the anti-toxic man. Grade: B+