It’s a shame that Cooper Raiff’s “Shithouse” didn’t get a chance to screen at this year’s SXSW, because this knowing and funny nano-budget debut is exactly the kind of film the Austin festival exists to showcase. And that’s all the more true because it sounds like such a potential nightmare on paper: Written, directed, and co-edited by its reluctant 22-year-old star with some help from his friends, Raiff’s vulnerable DIY gem tells a coming-of-age story about a mopey college freshman who’s struggling with the whiplash of leaving home.
He meets a girl, they spend a magical night together, things get awkward in the morning but maybe they’ll still be able to help each other figure shit out… you know how it goes. It’s basically the Platonic ideal of the movie you’d expect from a suburban white American softboy who’s been raised on Richard Linklater and “Sex Education.”
But here’s the catch: It’s good. Like, really good. And more than that, it somehow feels completely singular despite its lo-fi approach and even lower-concept premise. That starts with Raiff’s palpable disinterest in seeming cool. Don’t be fooled by (what could be misconstrued as) the look-at-me edginess of its title — “Shithouse” is guileless and sincere in a way that would get it bullied at school. Shot at a static remove that reflects the indifference of the outside world, but still beating with the open-heartedness of a video diary, Raiff’s debut pushes back against the general patois of zoomer disaffection to endearing effect, in order to reckon with the idea that growing up into the people they’re supposed to become should require kids to shrink away from away from the people they already are.
A few weeks ago, Alex (Raiff) still lived at home in Dallas with his mom (Amy Landecker) and his sister. The next thing he knew, he was 1,500 miles away and sleeping on a cot in the sterile cement dorm room that he shares with his asshole roommate, Sam (“Escape Room” star Logan Miller), an alcoholic-in-training who will drink until he soils himself if that’s what it takes to fit in. (They don’t call the party frat “Shithouse” for nothing.) If Alex hadn’t thrown in the towel on college already, he might see his roommate’s Don Hertzfeldt tattoo as a sign of hope — as proof that there’s a real person under all that performative self-destruction — but that ship has sailed. By the time the movie starts, Alex has so given up on making friends that the first conversation he has on screen is with his stuffed animal, and even that cute little dog is disappointed in him: “College sucks,” it says through subtitles, “but you’re not even trying.”
The dog is right, maybe on both counts. Alex isn’t trying, but it’s hard to work up the energy when it feels like everyone around you is only surviving through self-dilution; like they’re all just shutting down, getting drunk, and having meaningless sex in order to numb the pain of having to start over without a safety net. Alex is a handsome kid whose intractable honesty disguises a droll sense of humor, but he just can’t bring himself to play the game. When a sloppy girl at a party (mega-talented “Landline” breakout Abby Quinn) invites him to play a one-on-game game of spin the bottle, Alex bails on a sure thing in favor of… walking outside and watching home videos on his phone.
That Raiff is able to make that choice seem at all realistic is a credit to his unique screen persona. Or maybe it’s that his screen persona feels unique because it’s so realistic. Alex, the way that Raiff plays him, and virtually everything else about “Shithouse” is engaging because of how well it splits the difference between mumblecore lethargy and post-Apatow comic tenderness. The dialogue feels neither improvised nor overwritten, and the story is neither too loose nor too structured; one sequence starts with a long walk-and-talk only to blow up into a chase scene that’s bookended with some gentle Buster Keaton-esque physical comedy. The whole movie is suspended in a pleasant and intimate space between order and chaos, love and abandonment, leaving the nest and building a new one. Every time “Shithouse” borrows from something else, it only seems to become more itself.
It helps that Raiff has a rare eye for casting. He recognized that “First Girl I Loved” and “Support the Girls” star Dylan Gelula would be the perfect choice to play Maggie — the sexually available but self-isolating RA who Alex winds up with after their other dates for the evening don’t work out — and he badgered the actress over Instagram until she agreed to be in his movie. That worked out well for everyone.
From the detail-oriented and cringe-inducing (almost) sex scene that kicks off their enchanted night together, to a climactic heart-to-heart that hinges on a critical reading of the Jennifer Garner masterpiece “13 Going on 30,” these two characters are winsome foils for each other. Alex believes that college kids are “like newborn babies without anyone to hold us,” while Maggie contends that people are there to learn how to stand on their own two feet. It’s funny how those ideas can seem mutually exclusive. He thinks people turn off their brains as soon as they get to campus, and she counters that adapting to the demands of a new environment is maybe the most valuable kind of intelligence there is. He needs hugs to get through the day, and she’d rather take off her pants than lower her guard.
If the dynamic between them is far too needy and alive to feel didactic, that’s because Gelula is able to imbue even the sparest moments with a quiet storm of emotion. Near and distant at the same time — a full person who could slip through your fingers at a moment’s notice — her Maggie warms to Alex in order to keep herself from thawing. She’s more like him than she’d ever dare to admit, but that doesn’t mean he’s right. There may not be another actor of her generation who’s better at navigating between sensitivity and self-protection, and able to be so funny while she does it.
Whenever “Shithouse” starts drifting towards a more generic energy, or gets the tiniest bit too plotty for its own good down the home stretch, Gelula is there to bring things back on course and make this hushed little movie seem as delicate and formative as your own memories of freshman year. A super-promising debut from someone with a clear gift for personalizing shared experiences (and revitalizing the clichés that tend to make us think that we’re bored of ourselves), “Shithouse” knows that growing up can be a lonely process, but one that most people only feel like they have to go through on their own.
“Shithouse” was scheduled to premiere at SXSW 2020. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.