One of the Best Films of the Year Is From Dallas Filmmaker and ‘Next Linklater’ Cooper Raiff

You hear often about young artists who might be the “next Taylor Swift.” There are a lot of the “next Leonardo DiCaprios” out there. Occasionally, you’ll hear rumors about some teenage rapper who might be “the next Kendrick.” However, you probably haven’t heard about a 24-year-old who might be the “next Richard Linklater.”

But that would be a perfect description of Cooper Raiff, a young filmmaker from Dallas who has taken home national prizes and competed against some of the industry’s greatest talent. Raiff’s second film as a writer/director/producer/star, Cha Cha Real Smooth, screened in early May at the Dallas International Film Festival’s Spring Preview Event at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in the  Cedars, earning a warm response from viewers.

Cha Cha Real Smooth tells an untraditional story of familial bonding. Raiff stars as a character whose endearing, relentlessly empathetic personality didn’t require a lot of acting on his part. Andrew (Raiff) is going through a rough spot. Despite graduating from college, he lives at home in New Jersey in his little brother David’s (Evan Assante) bedroom. Andrew’s mother (Leslie Mann) is bipolar and has frequent depressive episodes.

Andrew’s mother pushes him to apply himself and find a real job, but manages to do so in a relatively endearing way. However, his stepfather Greg (Brad Garrett) is much harsher. He insists that Andrew is an adult and should start acting like one. He can’t just work behind the counter at their mall’s food court for the rest of his life.

Andrew can barely think about adult responsibilities like finding a job because he’s too busy trying to figure out his love life. Andrew’s girlfriend, Macy (Odeya Rush), is studying overseas in Barcelona. He’s desperate to join her, and starts to worry that their relationship will never be rekindled. This at least gives him a goal: to save up enough to pay for the expensive flight overseas.

However, a new development emerges in Andrew’s life when he takes his little brother to a bar mitzvah party. After having a little too much to drink, Andrew encourages the kids and adults alike to start hitting the dance floor. He shows compassion to a sensitive young girl named Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), whose mother, Domino (Dakota Johnson), is impressed by Andrew’s sensitivity with her daughter. She hires him to house-sit and take care of Lola while she’s out in the evenings.

It’s the first real job that Andrew gets, and he lands another new position the same night. After seeing how successful he is at livening up the event, the local bar mitzvah organizers hire Andrew as a “professional party starter.”

Raiff has always been interested in storytelling. While he was studying at Occidental College in Los Angeles during his sophomore year, Raiff borrowed (without permission) the school’s equipment to shoot a rough semi-autobiographical film titled Madeline & Cooper with his friends. Raiff dropped the 55-minute film on social media and tagged indie producer Jay Duplass, daring him to watch the film. Less than 24 hours later, Duplass responded and set up an interview with Raiff.

Duplass helped Raiff develop the concept further, expanding his extended short into the premise of a feature length film. This was Shithouse, Raiff’s official directorial debut. Raiff wrote, directed and starred in the coming-of-age dramedy, which debuted at the SXSW Film Festival in early 2020. Amid thousands of submissions, the film took home the Audience Choice Award.

Raiff had suddenly graduated to the big leagues, and Shithouse became a sensation over the course of the year after it was picked up by IFC Films. Raiff’s comedic, empathetic filmmaking style generated comparisons to filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Judd Apatow and of course, to fellow Texan Richard Linklater.

It wasn’t just audiences who were looking at Raiff as the next big thing. Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson reached out to Raiff, offering to finance his next film with her new production company TeaTime Pictures. Johnson insisted that Raiff co-star in the film alongside her.

Cha Cha Real Smooth debuted this January at the virtual edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Despite not being screened for live audiences, the film was an immediate crowd pleaser. It took home the U.S. Dramatic Competition’s Audience Award. The Best Picture winner CODA took home the same prize last year before its unstoppable awards run.

Raiff’s comedic, empathetic filmmaking style generated comparisons to filmmakers like Noah Baumbach, Judd Apatow and of course, to fellow Texan Richard Linklater.

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Apple became the first streaming service to take home the top Oscar with CODA, and they might be looking at Cha Cha Real Smooth to repeat their success. After dropping a historic $25 million for CODA, Apple paid $15 million for the exclusive distribution rights to Cha Cha Real Smooth.

The Dallas International Film Festival, or DIFF, is one of the most popular events for North Texas cinephiles every year. Just like every other festival in the film film community, it had a hectic few years adjusting to the constraints of COVID-19 shutdowns and safety procedures. Although the festival is typically held in late April and May, in 2021 it was held back to the fall movie season.

While this year DIFF will once again run during the fall, the folks at the Dallas Film Society have cooked up a special treat for cinephiles and decided to preview some of the most exciting projects in their upcoming slate. The “Spring Preview Event” ran in early May and featured an exclusive lineup of films set to premiere in the next few months.

In addition to Cha Cha Real Smooth, the Spring Preview also held screenings of Frank Marshall’s music documentary Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story, the Western Corsica, the historical drama Happening, and the indie Bad Axe. If you missed the event, you’ll still have the chance to participate in the festival later this year. The Dallas International Film Festival’s full slate will debut in October.

Of course, if you want to check out Cha Cha Real Smooth, you won’t have to wait very much longer. The film is set to debut on Apple TV+ on June 17. Unless you’re already a Ted Lasso fan, you should be able to fit in a free trial over the summer to check out one of the best films of the year.

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