Few movies grab the lonely, lost and timeless suck of freshman year at college as well as “Shithouse,” the debut feature of writer, director and co-star Cooper Raiff.
It’s a sweet, sensitive and amusing run through what being a freshman a long way from home has always been like and to a large degree remains like in the eternal college experience. I couldn’t get over how “Whoa, it was JUST like that” it was, and kids, I was in college before John Hughes was done telling everybody what high school could be like.
Alex (Raiff) is a nice 19 year-old, a loner-by-default, entirely too nurturing and human to ever wear the label “INCEL,” even by accident.
Maggie (Dylan Gelula of TV’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) is resident advisor in his dorm at a small, unnamed Los Angeles college.
He cries on the phone with his cool, cussing mom (Amy Landecker, warm and wonderful). Alex is also the sort who, when he fellow freshman roomie Sam (Logan Miller of “Before I Fall” and “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) gets drunk — again — tries to help him to the bathroom, limit his vomit to a trash can and always gets cussed out for it.
She’s just a sophomore, not that much older — but wiser, and wholly invested in the whole college hook-up scene.
They know each other from the dorm and stumble into each other at a party Sam has let Alex tag along to, at a frat home everybody calls “the Shithouse.” She doesn’t see him thoughtfully help another drunk into the bathroom ahead of them, but before the night is done, they’ll be together — but not in the ways we expect. And we wonder if they’ll even stay on speaking terms for the entire weekend.
Dude has NO game. Girl has NO luck. Freshman boys aren’t exactly the world’s most generous or accomplished lovers, and Maggie gets a reminder of that a couple of times before the night is through.
The first funny moment? She throws “wanna hang out” and “in my room” at him hours after that party.
“Do you even know my NAME?”
Takes a while to recover from that, but she gets a kick out of offering sage counsel to Mr. “I have no friends.”
“College should be the most selfish time of your life,” she advises, and “If you keep apologizing, THEN you’ll be sorry.”
Their “random” evening includes coming to terms with the fact that her pet turtle’s died and stumbling into a late-night drunken pick-up softball game, where he fast-pitches one right into Maggie’s thigh.
“I have literally never been so sorry in my life”
And then, things take a turn.
One “tell” in this indie dramedy is the fact that the writer-director “star” gives the leading lady most of the best lines. Smart.
There’s a little slapstick, a little drama, a little judging, a few good (not great) lines and a few instances of bad sex in this “Before Sunrise.” It’s occasionally brittle but cute, and more random than “deep.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“On airplanes I do.”
The arc of the story is log but narrow. And its message — that we don’t finish college the same person that we were when we began — is one every college kid should hear and appreciate.
Gelula, a veteran child actress able to summon immature confusion and the sense that Maggie doesn’t have the answers she thinks she does at 19, is terrific. Miller’s Sam is gregarious, clueless and starts out a jerk, but comes to appreciate his computer-chosen roommate’s supportive qualities, suggesting his “jerk” is more a product of alcohol abuse. Yes, he’s an amusing drunk.
And Raiff is a skinny, sensitive cipher, more at home with the emotional moments than the silly ones. The crying is a bit much, and he is playing a “type,” but he holds his own.
He doesn’t reinvent the genre, dazzle with his ear for dialogue or show himself a master technician behind the camera.
But what he does show us is sound judgement and generosity. He cast well and had the good sense to let the more experienced players have the best lines and moments to shine. Whatever his acting future holds, I could certainly see him getting his stories on the screen as a writer-director, even if he isn’t his own leading man, even if he isn’t reliving college experiences — the precious to the cringe-worthy, every time out.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content and drug/alcohol use
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker and Logan Miller
Credits: Written and directed by Cooper Raiff. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:41