by Bailey Pennick
“It’s just such a special and awkward and insane time,” says Cooper Raiff, laughing during a Q&A celebrating the premiere of Cha Cha Real Smooth. The multi-talented, multi-hyphenate writer-director-star is referring to his middle school years in which he went to many bar and bat mitzvahs (and, of course, danced to the infamous “Cha Cha Slide”). That chaotic time of hormones and homework inspired Raiff to center his sophomore feature on a 22-year-old bar and bat mitzvah reception “party starter” for his little brother’s friends in New Jersey.
And while Raiff goes on to describe his middle school experience as “the most visceral time” of his life, that post-college period where you are avoiding the start of real life is pretty awkward and insane too. His Cha Cha protagonist Andrew would agree with the visceral-ness. Andrew is a buoyant guy who wears his heart and his thoughts — no matter how invasive or cutting they are — on his sleeve. When he meets the reserved but endearing Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter, Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt), Andrew wonders if he could dive into their lives to ignore his own.
Raiff introduced the film by saying that “it’s about people finding love and learning how to love,” which struck a chord with Johnson. “I love Cooper’s voice and his heart. That’s what I’m in puppy love with,” the actress and producer gushes. “The way he studies people — and absorbs people — and is able to write them is really special. These relationships are special…and they’re not common on screen but they’re common in life and it’s important they’re on screen.”