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Cooper Raiff's goal is to make emotional movies—not feel-good ones. And the 25-year-old filmmaker delivers with Cha Cha Real Smooth, a film he wrote, directed, and stars in, about an adrift 22-year-old Andrew (played by Raith) who begins working as a party starter for bar and bat mitzvahs in his New Jersey hometown, after chaperoning his preteen brother to one.
While working the circuit so to speak, Andrew meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), who accompanies her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt) to the parties. Soon, he is wrapped up in the world of the tight-knit mother and daughter, as he becomes Lola's caretaker and begins to fall for Domino. It's a moving coming-of-age film about finding oneself and falling in love, and ultimately, when the credits roll, Raiff hopes viewers walk away with a "joyful sadness."
A few days ahead of the streaming premiere of his film, Raith chatted with Town & Country about attending bar mitzvahs as someone who isn't Jewish, working with Leslie Mann, who plays his mom, and why he hates when people call Cha Cha Real Smooth a "feel-good movie."
Why did you choose to set this story on the bar mitzvah circuit?
I needed a way for these two characters—a 22-year-old and 33-year-old—to keep coming into contact. I threw around some ideas, and then I had this idea: What if it's on the bar mitzvah circuit, 'cause what if he has a 12-year-old brother and she has a 13-year-old daughter?
I'm from Dallas–so I'm not Jewish, but I went to this school called Greenhill that was really small and heavily Jewish. I went there from kindergarten to 12th grade, and it didn't mean anything to me that all my friends were Jewish until seventh grade, when I literally went to a party and a service every Saturday.
It is just the most visceral time of your life. I had my first kiss at a bar mitzvah, and people smelled like they were going through puberty. One, I thought this idea of a 22-year-old who is not quite a man yet working, or just dancing at these parties with these little people becoming men. And two, being on the outside of the Jewish community and looking in defined a bit [of my life]; my girlfriend in high school was Jewish, I dated her for three years and did all the Shabbat dinners and was desperately wishing I knew the prayers. There's some envy or jealousy of how tight-knit the community is and how much they love the traditions. And her parents looking at me like, 'you're never gonna marry my daughter.'
At first I thought it was a silly idea, but then when I kind of got into it and thought about— the movie's really just about these two kind of broken families, and placing them at the bar mitzvah felt organic and nice and fun.
It’s funny, too, because this feels like such a deeply Jewish movie to me even though none of the main characters are Jewish. It also felt like the most authentic depiction of modern bar and bar mitzvahs I've ever seen.
It sometimes maybe easier to see [as an outsider]. I truly don't have a lot of memories from my childhood that are so clear, but that year of my life was so, so clear. I can tell you every second of my first kiss story. And I remember the party starter who worked at every single party. It was important to make it as authentic as possible, but always knowing that I am an outsider here and that the movie is not a Jewish story. There's not a main character who's having a party; it's on the outskirts of it.
What are things you remember about your time attending bar and bat mitzvah parties?
Honestly, the smell of B.O.
Bar mitzvahs are truly before kids wore deodorant!
The slow dancing, the snowball thing we did, the shoes being off... just the fact that all these parents are here watching their kids slow dance with each other. It's also your first party! I remember all of the boys sitting with each other, and the fact that I had a girlfriend but did not talk to her in any way.
What do you think your bar mitzvah theme would've been?
It would've just been a boring basketball theme, like Dirk Nowitzki would've been everywhere and LeBron.
In working on Cha Cha Real Smooth, were there stories you were inspired by in literature or elsewhere?
There's this book called Strange Weather in Tokyo, I read that book right before I wrote the script. It's about this age gap relationship; it's a really good book about love, with no bullshit about it. I'm always inspired by Sally Rooney's books; Normal People is my favorite book ever. I always steal from her. But yeah, those are two books! Thanks for asking about books. No one reads who talks to me.
I read that you wrote Andrew's mother with Leslie Mann specifically in mind for the role. What was your plan if she couldn't do the film?
There's so many amazing actresses in the world that I would've loved to have worked with as well, but I couldn't believe she said yes, cause she's the perfect person to play her. She just has this energy to her that it always feels like it's being bottled in some way. She's so deeply funny, and she balances comedy and drama so well. She's a uniquely alive person—it's so fun just talking to her in her trailer and on Zoom. She's so emotionally available in a way that is alarming; she will start crying talking about the white rice that she's eating. I'm kind of the same way. I really love her; I love watching her.
Was there anything you learned from Leslie as you worked with her?
She's so focused and really protective of herself. Movie sets are so chaotic, and there was no chaos around her. She's good at maneuvering on a set and navigating the chaos. I took some notes there.
As writer, director, and star, how did you handle the chaos?
Not well, not well.
It's only my second movie, so the learning curve was like ginormous. But, I had made a movie with a camera before, so it was less chaotic this time. It was really nice to have Ro Donnelly, the producer, who is Dakota Johnson's producing partner—those two were really with me from the very beginning. It was nice to feel like I could lean on them and trust them. We were all protecting the vision together.
I know the story of Domino and Lola was partly inspired by your mom and sister. Can you talk about what it means for you to authentically tell stories on screen, and protect that vision, as you just said?
The original idea for this movie was this bond between a mom and a disabled daughter. It's the heaviest, most emotional, most beautiful thing in the world to me. It's something that I know intimately well and have watched for 21 years; my sister is 21. I wanted to make a movie about it, but I didn't really know how. As I started digging away at why I wanted to make this movie, that's when I realized this movie needs to be told from this 22-year-old's perspective: It's to get into the mommy issue, while also just trying to show how intense this bond is.
When I watched Vanessa [Burghardt]'s audition tape, I started really crying. I don't know what triggered, but when I've talked about it since, I think what it was is I knew right away, she was reading with her mom. I was talking to Vanessa about it literally yesterday, and she's like, 'how'd you know it was my mom?' I don't know, you can just tell. You're so deeply, deeply tangled. I don't even know how to talk about it, but I wanted to make a movie about that feeling, and about this kid who's obsessed with it in a lot of ways, and wants to help out and wants to be a part of it.
Has your mom seen the film?
She's seen it a couple times, and we saw it together two nights ago at Tribeca. I held her hand the whole time. It was really nice.
What was her reaction the first time she saw it, or the most recent time she saw it?
She, like Leslie, is a blubbering mess, so she's crying quite a bit. It really is a love letter, and she knows that. I think she likes it.
Besides your mom, how do you hope viewers react to Cha Cha?
I hope they feel really specifically good about life going in really heavy directions, honestly, but feeling okay with how scary it can be to face your life alone and trying to figure out who you are. And also be wildly happy about getting married and having an unconventional family.
I want it to be really specifically good. I really don't like when people call Cha Cha a feel-good movie, even though I want people to feel good. I think "feel-good movies" have the connotation of like, "we're trying to give some feel-good stuff here." People only feel good if they feel so real and believable, and to make things feel real, you have to get at really heavy things, cause life is so heavy.
There's that quote at the beginning of Little Women, "I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales." And I really love that so much.
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