Crying is an integral part of Cooper Raiff’s creative process. The 25-year-old filmmaker says he knows he’s nailed a winning dialogue sequence when he bursts into tears. “I’ll write something and it’ll make me cry and I’m like, I can really see it,” he said, speaking on Zoom from Los Angeles. It’s no different when he’s on set, working as an actor and director. “Whether I’m on stage or behind the monitor, I still cry.”
His own life story so far is more likely to trigger tears of joy. Just a few years ago, Raiff was a Dallas college dropout delivering Uber Eats while dreaming of becoming an independent filmmaker like his heroes Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham and Sofia Coppola. Now it’s going high. His second film, Cha Cha real smoothA Tearful Feel-Good (of course), was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, scooped the People’s Choice Award, and was picked up by Apple for $15 million.
A Russian doll of coming-of-age stories, it centers on Andrew (played by Raiff), a recent college graduate struggling to make his mark in the adult world. He works daytime at a hot dog stand and moonlights as a motivational dancer on New Jersey’s bar mitzvah party circuit. It’s at one such event that he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a single mother suffering from depression caring for her autistic daughter Lola (played by newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, who has autism). Imbued with lo-fi charm and understated humour, Cha Cha marks the arrival of an author for the TikTok generation.
It was on Twitter that Raiff caught the eye of filmmaker Jay Duplass, another hero who would also become his mentor. While still a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Raiff uploaded a short film he had shot in his dorm to YouTube and included Duplass’ handle in a tweet. “I bet you won’t click that link,” he wrote. Duplass followed up with a message to say he won the bet.
Raiff’s feature debut, Shit, made on a budget of $15,000 with money raised from friends and family, is more tender than its title suggests. It won the Grand Jury Prize in the South by Southwest Festival Narrative Feature Competition in 2020, sparking an outpouring of interest from producers. Duplass walked his protege through the process of becoming the industry’s next independent darling, telling him, “No one will be offended if you say no to his request.”
Locked up at home in his pajamas (it was still the early days of Covid), Raiff googled the names of producers calling his agent and turned down those whose work didn’t seem to fit his heart-on-sleeve aesthetic, including heavyweight d horror Blumhouse Productions. “My agent said to me, ‘Are you kidding me?'” he recalls. “I was like, I’ll wait.”
He didn’t wait long. He got a call from Ro Donnelly, a former Netflix executive who had recently formed a production company with actor Dakota Johnson. The pitch for Raiff’s “bar mitzvah movie” was then nothing more than a title (a variant of the 2000 dancefloor hit “Cha Cha Slide”) and the outlines of two characters: a college graduate who pleases to people and an attractive single mother devoted to her disabled daughter. There was no script but Raiff faked that part, telling Donnelly and Johnson he needed a few more days to polish the pages.
A week later, he sent them half a script and told them the rest would be coming very soon. Everyone was eager to get to work. “I had just finished my first little, little, little movie and they had just started their business. So we were both quite hungry.
Contrary to the industry’s rush and expectation pace, they were on set in Pittsburgh less than a year later. At the time of filming, the script had evolved into a work that deals with bullying, bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse, and terminal capitalism. Given the lightness with which he approaches autism, Cha Cha sounds like a natural coda for CODA, the independent film that featured deaf actors and won this year’s Best Picture Oscar. Andrew’s relationship with Lola is both protective and low-key.
Her romantic relationship is with Domino, a modern-day Mrs. Robinson, who benefits from the wispy effect of Johnson and the French new wave. “The first time I met [Johnson] in person, she describes it like I look like I’ve never seen a human being before,” he says. “I was very nervous to see how pretty she looks in person.” But by the time they were on set, after months of collaborating with Zoom, inhabiting the characters they’d developed together felt like a natural progression. “I wasn’t anxious.”
Domino was inspired by Raiff’s mother, a psychologist who now cares for his younger sister, Andrea, who suffers from holoprosencephaly, a disorder in which the brain fails to divide properly into two hemispheres. She is unable to walk or speak. “My mother was the inspiration for Domino,” he says. “She wakes up every morning and walks to Andrea’s room,” he says, describing his mother’s unwavering devotion to her daughter’s needs. “She meets her exactly where she is, every day.”
Whether Cha Cha is in part a tribute to his mother, Raiff’s next project taps into the dynamics of his other parental relationship. His father, a corporate lawyer, attended every one of Raiff’s basketball games until he left for college. The Trackers is a father-son hockey film which he describes as “aggressive, angry and violent”. But with Raiff reworking the script, it’s probably safe to say that it will also involve some tears.
On Apple TV Plus from June 17