We certainly have no shortage of coming-of-age movies or college party movies. It seems to be popular terrain to explore for filmmakers because there’s some satisfaction in recalling the past, no matter how painful and awkward it may be. For viewers, it can be the very same. As we watch characters navigate new ventures like college or sort through their feelings for their first major crush, we can sit back and think how we have all been there. Awkward is the key word that comes to mind over-and-over again when watching Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse, which was set to premiere at this year’s Covid-canceled South by Southwest festival.
Raiff is an unknown name in film, but Shithouse serves as a fine calling card for directorial debut (he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film). Taking on so many hats suggests this was a labor of love for the young filmmaker, who has only appeared in two short films before making this movie. There’s a deep sense of honesty to each cringe-worthy situation, it’s fair to assume a great deal of what happens in Shithouse is based on some aspects of Raiff’s life.
Alex (Raiff) is a college freshman, who has moved to Los Angeles for school. He is homesick and deciding to leave Dallas for the west coast was a big undertaking for him. He is in constant contact with his mother (Amy Landecker) and sister (Olivia Welch), who he checks in with multiple times a day. Alex is afraid to explore his new world and having those moments of familiarity on the phone brings him some ease in his constant state of anxiety.
One night, Alex decides to go to a college party – the location name supplies the movie’s title – with his roommate Sam (Logan Miller). Sam couldn’t be more different than Alex. He is eager to embrace his newfound freedom away from home, drinks excessively and smokes pot daily, while trying to establish some sort of social clout among his fellow students. The party scene isn’t really for Alex, who strikes up a friendship with his RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula), which turns into more than a friendship. At least Alex thinks and hopes.
Shithouse has plenty of quirk to spare and it’s obvious where Raiff’s filmic influences come from (Jay Duplass has an uncredited cameo and a “special thanks” credit). But Shithouse never feels like it’s trying to copy a movie or tone that came before it. Instead, it feels like Raiff is trying to put a highly relatable scenario on screen to engage with his audience.
Raiff makes for a pleasant leading man and has great chemistry with Gelula, who is often on a different wavelength than him. Maggie likes Alex, that is always apparent, but she isn’t as eager to let someone in as freely as he is. It causes some interesting friction in their dynamic. Shithouse dives into more formulaic territory with the Sam character, who is a screenplay-made caricature of a new college student. Miller plays him big, as the page requests, which seems to be Miller’s screen persona (see Love, Simon but for a strong performance by the actor seek out Take Me to the River).
The movie’s familiarity might make some uncomfortable, but Shithouse is worth taking a trip to on a night in. Let the sweet, awkward nostalgia wash over you.