In a refreshingly funny, honest and heartwarming coming-of-age story, Cooper Raiff’s movie Cha Cha Real Smooth (on AppleTV+ June 17) is the drama-comedy film we needed, dare we say the dramedy of the year.
Cha Cha Real Smooth is centred around Andrew, played by Raiff himself, a 22-year-old who is stuck back home with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett) in New Jersey, fresh out of college and sharing a room with his brother David (Evan Assante). While working at a local “Meat Stick” stand and taking his younger brother around the bar mitzvah circuit, Andrew lands himself a job as the “party starter” at these local parties.
That’s where he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), encouraging them both to participate in those bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah dances we remember from our youth. That’s where this sweet, but messy, connection between Domino and Andrew begins.
“It's kind of based on my mom, honestly, and my sister,” Raiff told Yahoo Canada. “My sister is disabled and the character of Lola originally was just my sister.”
“Then when I started pitching it to people, I think I realized that my sister would be a really bad actress and would look into the camera the whole time, and so I decided to base her more on some of my sister's friends who she goes to school with. Then from there, I kind of had those two characters, and then I placed myself in the middle of it because I thought it would be best told through the lens of someone that I know well, which is a 22-year-old dumbass.”
'This is too good to not be the heart of the movie'
Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic, captivated Cooper Raiff from the moment he saw her tape to audition for Lola. It’s the actor herself that prompted the filmmaker to make changes to his original story.
“I got very emotional, I think because I knew that she was reading with her mom and there was a part of her that, I think, I could tell she was kind of annoyed with her mom for a second,” Raiff said. “I instantly recognized the relationship and the bond, and it had me in a chokehold.”
“She was the heart of the movie and I knew she was, but she was nothing like the character that we had written. I had to call the producer Ro Donnelly and say, hey I know she's nothing like the character but we're just going to write it for her because this is too good to not be the heart of the movie.”
In terms of collaborating with Burghardt in Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff said she’s “very opinionated” but he was also able to ask her a lot of questions throughout the process.
“I would sometimes ask her [if she likes] this line, and she'd be like ‘no I did not like that line,’ and then I'd say, well you said that about every line so we need to rewrite this whole thing,” Raiff said. “But the movie is so much better for it because she's such an interesting person and she's so talented,...so we really lucked out with her.”
In an interview with HeyUGuys, when asked about the positive response to Lola in the film, Burghardt highlighted that Lola is “a human before she’s an autistic person," which makes the the character seem more accessible to the viewer.
For Raiff, he stressed that “the most important thing” was that Burghardt was happy with the character, and that Dakota Johnson felt similarly about Domino as well.
Johnson in particular, who is also a producer on the film, worked very collaboratively with Raiff on the movie as a whole, but also on developing Domino.
“We met for the first time over Zoom, we just really hit it off and it felt like we had shared sensibilities,” he said. “She was like a script buddy, she read every draft of the script and had notes the whole time.”
“We'd have conversations about Domino and I'd literally write down things that she would say verbatim, and then we got to set and we were like co-parenting a set while also arguing about blocking. Then we'd have to call action and be soulmates on screen, so it was a rollercoaster but it was the best rollercoaster and it was a really fun, emotional ride with her.”
The 'eureka moment' for 'Cha Cha Real Smooth'
The filmmaker also identified that his “eureka moment” was when he had the bar mitzvah “party starter” idea for Andrew.
“I realized, OK, this is a movie about someone who's really good at starting other people's parties, but is really bad at starting his own,” Cooper Raiff said. “That was the real genesis of it.”
“There was this guy named Vince who worked every single party that I went to in seventh grade, because I went to a small school… I loved Vince. He was a 40-year-old man so he's probably like 50 [now], and I hope he's not still party starting, but he probably is.”
Cha Cha Real Smooth not only tugs at your heartstrings and makes you laugh, but it does so with this perfect balance of nostalgia (from the title alone referencing DJ Casper’s “Cha Cha Slide”) and these characters that you instantly feel invested in, that carry you through the story.
Ultimately, we hope Raiff gets all the resources he wants to make more movies that are truly a gift to watch.
Now with his second feature film under his belt, Raiff identifies that in his work, he seeks to create a “really specific, good feeling to arrive to by the end of the movie.”
“Not just, ‘I want it to feel good, I want good vibes,’...the movies that make me feel good are the movies I really believe and I feel are really authentic, but ultimately are about the battered optimists,” Raiff said, borrowing a line from Almost Famous filmmaker Cameron Crowe.
“Not just because I want to warm your heart but because I want us to…feel better about the pain, the joyful sadness.”