The most recent film by Cooper Raiff ’19, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival Jan. 23 and won the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. After the premiere, Apple bought worldwide rights to the film for about $15 million. The film was written and directed by Raiff — it stars himself alongside actors Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann and Vanessa Burghardt.
“Cha Cha Real Smooth” follows 22-year-old recent college graduate Alex, who gets a job working at bar mitzvahs. Alex then befriends a local mother Domino and her autistic daughter Lola, played by Johnson and Burghardt respectively. Alex gets a job babysitting Lola, and his relationship with her and her mother grows.
As an autistic actress playing an autistic character, Burghardt said in an interview with Deadline that she is appreciative that her character is a “fully-formed person.” In an interview with Variety, she said she was happy to play a character who is neurodivergent and multidimensional.
LA resident Tatiana Perez saw the film at Sundance and said she enjoyed it, especially the complex topics of autism and family relationships.
“I thought that it was both very funny and comforting,” Perez said. “There were a lot of interesting themes brought up.”
Perez said “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a well made film that will stand the test of time because of its balance of comedy and emotion.
“I’ve found this one to be my new go-to comfort movie. I also liked that it was both a serious movie, but there was a lot of comedic relief,” Perez said. “I will be watching it a lot on [Apple TV+] when it comes out too.”
LA resident Daniel Guerrero is also a fan of Raiff’s work, and said he is looking forward to seeing “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”
“I was seeing [Raiff] on social media back in 2020 after he made his movie ‘Shithouse,’” Guerrero said. “I was surprised how good of a movie he made at such a young age.”
Raiff shot his first film, “Shithouse,” on campus at Occidental, where the story takes place. It refers to multiple locations throughout campus including Pauley, Berkus and Mount Fiji and tells the story of a college freshman adjusting to life away from home. The film won the top award, the Grand Jury Award, at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW).
Guerrero said he had difficulty getting tickets to see the film at Sundance and that it was sold out when he checked. Perez also said a few times when she checked, some of the showings for “Cha Cha Real Smooth” were sold out, and she was excited to finally get tickets.
Music Supervisor Rob Lowry said he was proud of this film and happy with his overall experience working on it with Raiff.
“It’s a true joy, and one of the things I am most proud of in my career,” Lowry said. “Cooper is a true genius and a phenomenal collaborator.”
Lowry said this was a dream film for him to work on.
“It was an incredibly challenging and fulfilling project to be a part of,” Lowry said. “Cooper and I hit it off from the moment we met and have very similar taste in music, so we were always on the same page.”
Director’s Assistant Daniel Lewis said despite the new virtual set-up for Sundance, he had a positive first experience seeing his work at a film festival.
According to Lewis, part of his job was to ensure that things ran smoothly for Raiff on set — from practical tasks such as issues with food, to more creative input.
“I was Cooper’s assistant from pre-production, through production, through post-production,” Lewis said. “We had a pretty close relationship before, and he knew he could trust me as someone to not only provide moral support, but to confirm different things that he needed a second pair of eyes on.”
According to Lewis, those who worked on the film are very proud of its success, especially since it was purchased by Apple.
“It was surprising, but not that anyone thought that it was an impossible thing to happen,” Lewis said. “Everyone was so excited, and we couldn’t be happier. I think that everyone is just really happy that the movie seems like it’s going to have a nice life, which is really the only thing that you can ask for in that kind of situation.”
SXSW will screen “Cha Cha Real Smooth” March 18 at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX. There will also be an online screening event March 19. The film is entered in the “Festival Favorites” category.