At the 2021 Sundance Festival, with the world still relocating after a pandemic, with movie theaters at half gas and in an edition forced to be online, Apple bought an indie film, without a known cast or a relevant director for 25 millions of dollars. An exorbitant amount that many thought was a mistake for a film that only had one award in an independent contest like Sundance to its credit. The title of that film was coda, and what happened next is well known. The film ended up achieving Oscar for Best Film in the edition held this year.
The remake of the French title La familia Belier, for which nobody bet and for which the platform took out the checkbook, beat movies like The Power of the Dog, West Side Story, Licorice Pizza or Dune. Apple TV + thus became the first platform to win the Oscar for Best Picture, a milestone that Netflix had pursued for years and that had resisted it despite playing author cinema strongly, producing names like Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese or Jane Campion.
A year later, the move has been repeated. At a Sundance that was held half face-to-face, half virtual, Apple came with its scouts in search of its new jewel. The lucky one was Cha Cha Real Smooth (Dancing for life), again directed by an unknown and that responds to that feel good movie label that has worked so well with Coda. The film is the second by the very young Cooper Raiff, who at just 25 years old won the audience award for best US film in this edition and saw how the platform bought his small project for 15 million. It is not the only coincidence with Coda. If at that time it was the deaf community that was seen for the first time represented in the cinema in a truthful way, here one of the protagonists is a young autistic woman played by an autistic actress. Here there is no acting exhibitionism in search of awards, but a director seeking to be authentic.
Cooper Raiff says he prefers "not to think about it." "I don't want to put that pressure on the movie. I love Coda, and I think Apple did a wonderful job with it. It's amazing that after what they've accomplished the next movie they put out is mine. That makes you feel great, but They're different movies and I hope people watch them without making comparisons." At Sundance he tried not to read reviews of the film, but he does acknowledge that when Apple bought Cha Cha Real Smooth, "craze" was unleashed. "I felt like I had it done, that I was going to be able to make movies. I was overwhelmed. It was overwhelming, because it was the push into something I didn't yet consider myself to be. And it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by all the possibilities and opportunities that I knew I was going to get." have from that moment on", he says honestly about a film that can already be enjoyed on the platform.
A film that he has not only directed and written, but also stars as Andrew, a 22-year-old fresh out of college who doesn't know what to do with his life and has no choice but to return to New York with his family. Jersey, where he gets a job as an entertainer at his little brother's classmates' bar mitzvah parties. There he meets Domino and her daughter Lola, who has mild autism. A beautiful relationship will be established between all of them where Cooper Raiff demonstrates his ability to move from an apparent lightness.
"My sister has a disability, and my mother has an eternal bond with her, very specific. The seed of this film is that bond, that bond," explains the director, who mixed that personal story with the world of bar mitzvahs. Raiff is not Jewish, but as a child he attended a Jewish school, something that marked him. Also the fact that one of his first girlfriends was "a Jewish girl named Sarah Brooke, for three years in high school." He felt like "an outsider looking at this community" and felt that Sarah's father looked at him "as if to say of her, you are never going to marry her."
His first film, Shithouse, told of a boy going to college, "a very close experience" to his real life, and who spoke "of the pain of leaving home and growing up in that time of transition." His second film talks about coming home when, after finishing university, one finds oneself in a void. Without a job, without being independent and forced to return to the room of his adolescence. Cooper Raiff eventually didn't go to college, but he felt something similar when before COVID he went back to his parents' house, to his college room.
One of the most outstanding elements of his film is his portrayal of a protagonist who falls in love but is not a pimp, a showoff. Not a trace of the 'machitos' that have populated fictions for years. A new masculinity that, according to Raiff, does not respond to a specific intention, but to talk about what one knows. "I write what I know, and he didn't ask me to write a script about masculinity. My mother is a psychologist, and she thinks feelings are wonderful. When I was six years old, she always told me to tell her all my feelings, and I think she taught me how to cry a lot. And when I write, I only write about the things I know best, and I know a lot about crying. So I think that's why my characters cry as well."
At his side, Dakota Johnson and a revelation called Vanessa Burghardt, an actress with autism who came out of a search across the country. As soon as he saw her, Raiff knew it was her and began to cry. The director doesn't particularly like "the concept of representation", and he believes that it all comes from really caring about his characters. He also initially disliked the idea of having a consulting group to avoid making mistakes in the portrait of autism, but finally admits that "it was an amazing job." "This is not about just thinking about representation, this is not about teaching someone autistic, but about showing you a real person. I wanted to make a film about a mother and a girl with a disability, because it is a very specific thing that I care a lot, and I care because I was representing my mother and my sister, who would die for them. I want to make movies about people I would die for and who I love and want other people to love and understand."
He has directed, written and acted in his first two movies, but he doesn't want that to become the norm. In fact, he prefers to focus on directing, but he is aware that this package seems to be his calling card: "I think what sold me with my first film was that I did all the things, so that's what interested people. It happens too, and I don't want to say that people didn't trust me to direct a movie, but even I felt more comfortable doing what I had just done because that was my comfort zone, but after two movies I feel like I do now. I'm confident as a director, and I want to be close to my actors and as emotionally available as I was when I was doing everything."
In recent years, Hollywood has hunted down indie film talent for its big productions. Jon Watts, Colin Trevorrow, James Gunn... All signed by big franchises after succeeding with their small debuts. It would not be surprising if Marvel wanted that good vibe that Cooper Raiff's cinema gives off. At the moment, the director says he prefers "the most personal films" and calls for those more intimate films to "also be really great." "I think I'm pretty naive, really, because, for example, I'm now preparing my new movie, The Trashers, about hockey, and it seems huge. I think it's a very big movie and I say that to the heads of the studios, It's a big movie, and everyone's like, 'What are you talking about?' So yeah, I like personal movies that talk about real people and intimate situations. But I want to like my movies, and have people to the cinemas".