I have to start this by saying I am 100 percent the audience for Cha Cha Real Smooth, Cooper Raiff’s new film about an aimless 22-year-old white dude who falls for an older woman. I have been waiting for this movie to come out since I first heard it was being made, which was … a while ago. I knew of Raiff because I had stumbled upon his first and only other film, Shithouse, on Amazon Prime last year. Stumble is a strong word. I had found it because I like co-star Dylan Gelula, specifically her choices (specifically First Girl I Loved and Support the Girls). “A lonely college freshman (Raiff) forges a strong connection with his resident assistant (Gelula) during a fraternity party,” the description read for Shithouse. I watched the trailer. It looked like an indie movie from the ’90s, or even like a little later, maybe, like a cross between a Richard Linklater and a Judd Apatow. In other words, it looked like the kind of movie I love that is really hard to find these days unless you are ceaselessly surfing streamers and foreign releases—the kind of movie I used to see in the cinema as a teenager in Alberta even though no one else around me was watching them.
I liked Shithouse. I liked it enough to even recommend it to some friends, probably because of the low stakes of its streamability along with the pleasant surprise of randomly landing on something not terrible. I liked it enough to look up Raiff and be irritated by the fact that he was in his early 20s and had produced, directed, written, co-edited and starred in his first film and it wasn’t fucking awful. I liked it enough to remember his name.
Raiff’s second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, is … not as good. It’s about “a lonely college freshman forging a strong connection with his resident assistant during a fraternity party,” if you replace “college freshman” with “recent graduate” and “resident assistant” with “an autistic girl’s mom” and “fraternity” with “bar mitzvah.” And the girl’s not Gelula, it’s Dakota Johnson. A better filmmaker than he is an actor, Raiff is a cloying, clingy presence on screen, which was annoying in Shithouse but also understandable. It’s a little less acceptable in Cha Cha, particularly in the context of Johnson’s quiet sensual maturity—there is no way this woman would ever be attracted to this goober. This is not quite manic pixie territory, but Raiff falls into the well-established category of well-educated upper class white dudes who think their emotional incontinence is somehow subversive (Cameron Crowe also lives here). Because of that Cha Cha reads a lot like a vanity project, one in which this kid casts himself as seductive to a full-on mom whom he saves—in very Garden State style slo-mo—from a miscarriage and who tells him to “do your 20s” while he blubbers about “soul mates” in the face of what he clearly deems her thankless home life. This is what indie movies thought was charming in 1997. This is what I thought was charming in 1997.
OK, so before I go any further, people should be allowed to make mediocre movies. I’ve seen a lot of them. Some of them I actually love (hi, Elizabethtown). And this is only Raiff’s second film, he’s made it pretty clear he’s learning on the job (that’s a whole other issue I will get back to). The thing about Cha Cha is that it was the big breakout at Sundance. Apple bought it for $15 million. The last Sundance breakout that Apple paid an arm and a leg for, CODA, won the Oscar for best picture—and that was a remake of a hit French movie, and starred Oscar winner Marlee Matlin. Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: Four years ago, Raiff—who has only just turned 25—made a 50-minute no-budget film about his university relationship, then made a Twitter account solely in order to tweet the YouTube link at Jay Duplass, who asked him out for lunch, then proceeded to mentor him for nine months through the industry, helping him turn his short into the feature-length Shithouse (for which Raiff quit university, by the way), which won the grand jury prize at SXSW (after an editing extension finagled by Duplass), after which Raiff pitched and sold Cha Cha with no script (and barely a story), which went on to win the audience award at Sundance and get outsized press because of the stardom of Johnson, who Raiff requested and got because the producer who took the pitch was her business partner.
It’s not that I’m saying all of this shouldn’t happen to young filmmakers, I’m just saying the rare times it does, the fact that they tend to look like Raiff and make films like him can’t be a coincidence. (Duplass told The New York Times he was drawn to Raiff’s “emotional maturity,” a descriptor that has been used for Duplass’s own work.) Because of that, a success story which would have read perfectly normal 30 years ago, reads as a little suspect now.
Back in 1989, Steven Soderbergh kicked off the indie film boom, inspired by his own “ugly behavior” to make the first in the era’s string of not-so-lightly misogynistic character studies, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, about a drifter who gets off on taping women discussing their sexual fantasies. Described by film historian Peter Biskind as the first Gen X movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape became the talk of the then-minor Sundance festival, winning the audience award and a multi-million-dollar deal with Miramax—putting indie film, Sundance, and Miramax on the map. That year’s top films didn’t look too different from today’s—Indiana Jones, Batman, Back to the Future—though Dead Poets Society was also in the top five (the next year Ghost would be number one). Which is to say, there was a market for mid-budget films (the sorts of films that cost anywhere between $5 and $75 million and live between art house and blockbuster). According to filmmaker Whit Stillman, who also benefited from this moment, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, on a $1.2 million budget, ended up making $60 million at the box office, meaning it was “so commercially successful that the industry decided that indie films could be a business.” This allowed a number of filmmakers who form a direct line to Raiff (via Duplass and the rest of the mumblecore movement)—Linklater, Kevin Smith, Edward Burns and Noah Baumbach to name a few—to carve out their own niche in an already mid-budget-friendly box office. It’s worth mentioning here that, in 1991, two years after Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh reconsidered his breakout film as the work of a man “who wants to think he’s deep but really isn’t.”
Three decades on, Sundance, formerly a place for those outside the Hollywood system, is now very much a part of it. Unknowns with no-budget films don’t get distribution deals from major studios at Sundance anymore, as they are now sidelined by big stars, big studios, big press, and big sponsors—the festival has committed that cardinal Gen X sin, selling out, just as the film industry itself has sold down the river the kinds of movies Sundance used to be known for, abandoning the mid-budget market to focus almost solely on the tentpole. The mid-budget has subsequently migrated to streaming, where niche is permitted but often gets lost in a sea of content. Which is why I found Shithouse by happenstance.
While studios like Miramax no longer exist, Raiff had a Duplass on his side, so he was able to sell to a streamer through Sundance. But who gets a Duplass on their side? It’s virtually impossible to get famous people to commit to indies anymore, considering so many are tied up in Netflix’s and Marvel’s content factories. And yet indie financiers require stars to finance the filmmakers they are increasingly underpaying. Earlier this year film critic Girish Shambu noted the irony of studios investing less in mid-budget films at the moment more women and people of color are making them. A24 has done a good job of appealing to a theatrical market which now skews younger—the 18-to-34 set—their gamble paying off recently with the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once. But this is a rare case. As Licorice Pizza’s financier told The Los Angeles Times, “The right kind of feature can draw audiences to the multiplex. That’s as long as it can be ‘eventized’ through its intellectual property and cast, and has a studio willing to spend the needed marketing cash.” This explains why, even when an indie film does breakout, it’s usually a feel-good tearjerker with blunted edges for wider appeal—better yet, established IP like book adaptations or remakes (or Barbie)—to get the biggest bang for its miserly buck.
Amid all this industry upheaval, you get a lot of filmmakers saying: Just do it yourself! Just grab a camera! Don’t wait! And, sure, do that. That’s what so many of those guys in the ’90s did, and they got famous for showcasing their raw talent, uncompromised by studios. But what looked at the time like a free-for-all was really a free-for-some—count up the number of women and people of color who got those opportunities, I’ll wait. And even those opportunities for the Soderbergh descendants became vanishingly small with the loss of the mid-budget space into the streaming black hole and the growing tentpole race. As indie filmmaker Oren Moverman, himself a white dude who last directed a film five years ago, told Variety, “the sort of grungy putting together of ten dollars here, ten dollars there to make a film—it’s possible from a financial standpoint, it’s just a question of where it will ever be seen.”
Cha Cha Real Smooth was seen because it’s what has been seen countless times before—a young white male filmmaker’s story about a charmless white guy’s relationship with a woman who, outside of the movies, would never give him the time of day. It’s a bankable story with bankable faces both in front of and behind the camera. You could call it indie. I call it selling out.