Cooper Raiff talks tender tear-jerker ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

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Cooper Raiff cries while watching every movie. He cries in them too.

In his debut feature “Shithouse,” Raiff plays Alex, a 19 year old with a Peter Pan Complex. Early in the film during a bout of homesickness, he calls his mom, who gives him a laundry list of medications to take to alleviate his first college cold (Claritin followed by Zyrtec). He hangs up, and the waterworks flow.

Part of the everyday charm of Raiff’s movies are their banal specificity: Something like a Walgreens shopping list is imbued with all the weight of one’s teenage years and everything that once was familiar being abruptly supplanted. Or, in Raiff’s latest winsome Sundance treasure, “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” out this month, a Bar Mitzvah can become an unlikely confluence of people on disparate paths.

“In ‘Cha Cha,’ I wanted to say something about your 20s, where it’s the time where you start your own party,” Raiff said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “Andrew, who’s such a great party starter for other people, is a perfect person to tell that story.” 

The film’s listless 20-something, played by Raiff, is Andrew, a recent college grad and disillusioned “Meat Sticks” employee — he’s thrust into the center of the New Jersey Bar Mitzvah scene, by a combination of happenstance and the requisite party-starter determination.

“It became like this great narrative device, really,” Raiff said of the Bar Mitzvah setting.

Indeed, it’s at a Bar Mitzvah where Andrew meets and begins cultivating a connection with mother-daughter duo, Domino (Dakota Johnson) and Lola (Vanessa Burghardt). Lola is autistic, which affects her relationships with adults and especially with kids her age, and it pervades the life of Domino, too. 

“The movie, ‘Cha Cha,’ first started just with this character, who was a mother of a disabled kid, whose life at an early age was defined by the stages of this kid, and whose life will always be defined by those stages,” Raiff described. 

Raiff, whose sister is disabled, is more equipped than most to give a voice to the mothers of disabled kids on film. 

“The character Domino is kind of based on my mom — Freud would have a lot to say about that,” he laughed. 

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Raiff doesn’t seem to be allergic to candor when it comes to the degree of autobiography in his work. 

“I think Andrew’s instincts are the same as mine,” he said.

Domino’s source material may be a little more hazy, but her character is functional to both Andrew’s journey of self actualization and to Raiff’s creative attentions in the film, many of which form a consonance with those of “Shithouse.”

“I wanted to kind of explore what your 20s can mean, and what your 30s can mean, and how Domino didn’t have that 20s experience that Andrew is having,” Raiff explained. “There’s this really funny, interesting thing where Andrew feels like he’d be so great as a 30 year old and he would love to have that sort of commitment to tie him down and not have to think about who he is.”

This segmented approach to thinking about life has the potential to seem near-sighted or limited in its understanding of human experiences, many of which transcend adolescence, young adulthood or middle age. Raiff himself — a successful writer-director-actor at 26 — defies much of what society has come to believe about where one should be by their mid-twenties.

He, and his films, also resist the expectations the industry has been vigilant about imposing on filmmakers getting their start in the indie scene. Rather, Raiff is content to abide by his own strictures, a quality that can seem somewhat vintage in the streaming era.

“I know how passionate I am about making things that I can have control over the whole way through,” he admitted. “I really don’t want a lot of outside.”

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is idiosyncratic in its ability to affect, to cut deep. That’s a quality which is more a function of Raiff’s sentimental personal ethos than any premeditated creative inclination. It is something that can’t help but illuminate his work, which is unabashedly — almost embarrassingly — tender and compassionate. 

Raiff’s films are unique, but not because they are particularly boundary-pushing, or even particularly exemplary. Rather, they give the distinct and not insignificant feeling that this is what more movies could and should look like: real people growing up and falling in love in a way that is detached from narrative or tradition, realism inflected with wit and more than a few tears.

“There’s certain movies that I know I’m gonna love forever at the start of the third act. I start crying and I just don’t stop,” he laughed wryly. “That is so romantic.”

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].