REVIEW – ‘Shithouse’ is one of the most authentic young adult narratives in years

When the press release for Cooper Raiff‘s impressive directorial debut Shithouse (or S#!%house, as it’s being marketed for obvious reasons) arrived in my inbox, I must admit I made several incorrect assumptions about this film, particularly given the poster features a gang of adolescents downing a bunch of shots. While you may assume a film with a title like Shithouse is this generation’s crude college comedy in the same vein as American Pie or Animal House, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Ignore the misleading title and you’ll find one of the year’s most delightful surprises.

Unfortunate title aside, Raiff has delivered a beautifully personal and deeply charming debut film that will feel painfully familiar to anyone who ever felt like an outsider during their difficult college days. Written, directed, and co-edited by Raiff (ah, these overachieving young filmmakers) and elevated by a terrific ensemble cast, Shithouse is a deceptively simple film that packs a mighty emotional punch and deftly announces Raiff as both a filmmaker and actor to keep an eye on.

Raiff plays Alex, a dorky college freshman who left the comfort of his home in Dallas to attend school in Los Angeles. Painfully shy and socially awkward, Alex is struggling to adapt to college life, often retreating to daily phone calls with his doting mother (Amy Landecker) and younger sister, Jess (Olivia Welch). While his obnoxious roommate Sam (Logan Miller) is attending parties and getting wasted, Alex is often found curled up in bed with his security blanket stuffed dog who “speaks” to him in telepathic subtitles with blunt advice like, “You tried. Let’s go home.”

In a bid to shake up his situation, Alex tags along with Sam to a party at a communal campus nicknamed “Shithouse” (the film’s odd title sake), where he bumps into his resident advisor Maggie (Dylan Gelula). After plenty of awkward flirting, the two end up in Maggie’s room, leading to an attempted sexual encounter that fails spectacularly. Much to Alex’s surprise, Maggie doesn’t boot him out, rather she invites him to stay, drink cheap wine, and help properly bury her recently deceased pet turtle.

After spending all night venturing around town, sharing private details of their lives, and connecting over their mutual disdain for the college party scene, it’s clear Alex is already completely smitten with his potential kindred spirit. However, when the sun rises the next day, Maggie becomes a different person completely, leaving Alex bewildered at what he did wrong.

What Raiff has crafted feels like the Gen-Z equivalent of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and it’s undeniable the young filmmaker has been influenced by Linklater’s work. By centring his narrative on two young potential lovers who become closer acquainted through a series of lengthy conversations, Raiff invites us to witness one of the year’s most charming romances. Raiff and Gelula play off each other tremendously well, taking full advantage of their sublime chemistry. But it’s Raiff authentic dialogue that really elevates this film, with the writer/director injecting much of his own personal college experience into his debut film.

Raiff is staggeringly convincing as Alex, making it undeniable the character is essentially a fictionalised version of himself. Not to get too personal here, but Alex is a character I understand intimately well. The nerdy, socially inept young adult who yearns for connections with those around him but no clue how to make it happen. The hopeless romantic who misreads a one night stand as something more than it is, resulting in social media stalking, a flurry of unanswered texts, and an eventual emotional meltdown. The homesick youngster who instantly calls his mom as soon as something bad happens. Oh, yeah. I get this character and it’s highly likely many of you will too.

Even without a personal connection to our protagonist, it’s hard not to adore Alex, even as he makes some confounding decisions while bumbling his way through what seems like his first genuine shot at love. Raiff plays Alex with such incredible warmth and compassion, making it easy to see how someone so aloof as Maggie falls for his awkward charm. Raiff perfectly captures Alex’s exacerbated confusion at Gabbie’s cold dismissal, which will hit hard for all those nice guys out there who consistently seem to finish last.

While Raiff’s writing doesn’t quite effectively write a female character as well as his male lead, Gelula knocks it out of the park with a deeply layered performance that’s a wonderful mix of comedy and drama. Maggie is so thrown by meeting a genuine guy who treats her well that she throws up her walls and shuts down. There’s clearly pain in Maggie’s past and it’s causing her to act out in typical adolescent fashion; drinking, bed-hopping, and closing herself off from a real connection. She could easily be an unlikable character, but Gelula finds the pathos and somehow captures your sympathy as equally as Raiff.

Much like Linklater’s films, Shithouse is a heartfelt look at the complicated journey of two lost souls who somehow find each other. This is easily one of the most authentic young adult narratives in years. It’s simple and sweet with lashings of humour and pertinent observations on taking one’s next steps in life. While Raiff fumbles the landing with a carelessly unnecessary epilogue that simply doesn’t need to be added, it’s a genuine joy to watch everything preceding it.

For a filmmaker to craft such a confident piece of cinema in their debut work is wildly impressive. Raiff taps into the debilitating vulnerability and anxiety of youth that will feel terribly relatable to audiences both young and old. Shithouse feels more authentic than most of the coming-of-age college drivel we’re often subjected to. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that so often produces stale cinema. Ignore the woeful title and discover this magic little gem for yourself.

Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker, Logan Miller, Olivia Welch, Abby Quinn, Joy Sunday, Ashley Padilla
Director: Cooper Raiff
Producers: Divi Crockett, Will Youmans
Screenplay: Cooper Raiff
Cinematography: Rachel Klein
Production Design: Teddy Padilla
Editing: Autumn Dea, Cooper Raiff
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: 16th October 2020 (U.S.)