2020, R, 102 min. Directed by Cooper Raiff. Starring Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Logan Miller, Amy Landecker, Olivia Welch, Abby Quinn.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Oct. 16, 2020
Anyone who has been to college knows one thing: When you got there, everything which you were sure of turned out to be nonsense. That's the underlying message of Shithouse, one of the most extraordinary debuts of the year.
The SXSW Grand Jury Award winner is the first feature of star, writer, and director Cooper Raiff. The 23-year-old (only 21 when he shot it) mixes both the sponge- like qualities of a new filmmaker and the burgeoning possibilities of a fresh voice.
Most films headed up by a multi-threat feel completely self-indulgent, but Shithouse starts with an act of total self-deprecation. Alex (Raiff) is a freshman who just isn't doing college well, as his supportive cuddly husky toy tells him via subtitles. It's not the academic side, but everything else: His roommate, Sam (Miller) is a drunken boor, he has zero friends, and his only real contact is with his widowed mom (Landecker) and sister, Jesse (Welch), back in Dallas.
At the other end of the spectrum is his dorm's RA, Maggie (Gelula). However, that doesn't mean she's the popular party girl. Spiky and emotionally isolated, she's a borderline recluse, only bothered about her grades and her pet turtle.
They're polar opposites because she sees hooking up as a semi-anonymous act, while he thinks its the door to hearts and flowers and romance. So when the inevitable meet cute occurs, they're both left dealing with the emotional fallout.
It's not hard to see Raiff's influences. There's more than a dash of Linklater's shambling take on twentysomething life in Slacker in the succession of parties Alex hits in search of some interaction. Yet it's also easy to see the Before trilogy's free-roaming conversations in the duo's inter-coital walk through the hills. At the same time, there are hints of the studious naturalism of mumblecore, both in presentation and execution. Nowhere is that clearer than in cinematographer Rachel Klein's sensitive handling of the sex scenes, which brings to mind the "lock it and let it go" approach of mid-era Joe Swanberg. And, of course, there's a soupcon of John Hughes' suburban surrealism and even Zach Braff's courageous belief that our flaws are not all we are but always with us.
But while you can checklist Raiff's Netflix queue for influences, you can't foresee what he does with those titles. There's a low-key honesty to everything here, an intimate understanding of the awkwardness of being 19 and out in the weird world for the first time, dealing with adult shit when you haven't really put your pre-college home life behind you. Yet there's also a heartfelt optimism about our ability to find our unlikely way to love and knowing ourselves. Part Nora Ephron, part David Lowery, but all shot with his own lo-fi eye, Raiff keeps a rough-and-ready vibe to the narrative (and pulling in stories that feel very close to home) while remaining compassionate about both Alex and Maggie. It also feels resolutely contemporary, observed as only a twentysomething who grew up on Instagram and Edward Fortyhands could manage.
Alex is well-intentioned throughout, but Shithouse isn't an apologia for "nice guys." Instead, it's a story about how easy it is to get lost in your own head, and that fixing yourself isn't about big, bold, Lloyd-Dobler-hefting-a-beat-box Say Anything antics. It's about taking time to listen and be heard, to see beyond what you think you want and instead recognize what's in front of you. It's profoundly romantic but never simplistic, and that's what makes it truly special.
Shithouse is in theatres and on VOD now. A version of this review ran as part of our SXSW 2020 coverage.