Every once in a while the rare movie comes along that is not only able to capture the feelings, emotions, and thoughts of an entire generation—but actually portray them on screen in an accurate way. Shithouse, Cooper Raiff’s debut film that won this year’s SXSW Grand Jury Award, does just that. This film is the perfect counterpart for the unsure, anxious, and overly self-conscious generation that its characters belong to. That success is largely due to the fact that, similar to films like Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Swingers, it’s abundantly clear that the creative forces behind Shithouse were, and are, around the same age as the characters on screen. In other words, it’s a movie for young people by young people, which allows it to have a level of authenticity that just wouldn’t be possible if it were written or directed by someone from an older generation. Raiff—the central mastermind behind this film—wrote, directed, and starred in it at the young age of 22. His innocent, yet mature take on the college experience is sure to resonate with viewers who are clumsily navigating their way through that time in their lives. And because of that, I believe this film will have a lasting and profound impact on those who do choose to seek it out.
The story Shithouse tells is a simple one. It follows a homesick college freshman named Alex (Raiff), who is struggling to adjust to his new life at school. After forcing himself to step out of his comfort zone and attend a party, Alex meets a sophomore RA named Maggie (Dylan Gelula) who he instantly falls for. Essentially, the entirety of the film’s first half takes place on the night Alex and Maggie first meet. Throughout this night, the audience watches the two main characters get to know each through a series of long, personal, and revealing conversations that are not dissimilar to the ones had by Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply in Before Sunrise. We learn that Alex has a rawness and vulnerability to him that mirrors the overall tone of this film. We also learn that Maggie’s personality and lifestyle represent a lot of what Alex wants, and needs, out of his college experience. As with many other great coming-of-age films, Shithouse‘s story is one that somehow feels both precisely specific and completely universal at the same time.
The main reason Shithouse stands above many other films that share a similar plot is the thoughtful approach Raiff brings to the telling of this story. He explores this critical time in people’s lives in a manner that feels both contemplative and considerate. It’s clear to the viewer that Raiff has real empathy for the characters in his story and understands the struggles that they may be going through. Moreover, Raiff includes incredibly specific observations about what it is like to be a confused, in-over-your-head young person, which almost makes Shithouse feel less like a film, and more like a memory that you never actually had. If you were ever on either end of an awkward and possibly devastating courtship process during college, then this movie will absolutely resonate with you. At some moments, it is actually scary how much this film feels like real life. It never crosses into over-the-top territory, and both the comedic and dramatic moments feel genuine to the story and the characters.
It’s impossible to write about this film without mentioning the two brilliant performances at the center of it. Raiff and Gelula give excellent individual performances, but it is their chemistry together that ultimately pushes this movie to another level. Although both of their performances can be described using words like subtle and understated, there is something electric about the two when they are on screen together. Also, since the viewer is never really supposed to see either character as the “good guy” or “bad guy,” the magnetic quality that both of these actors possess on screen is not just a nice addition to the film, but an actual necessity.
From a technical standpoint, I was really impressed with Raiff’s directorial work, especially in light of the fact that this was his first feature. His utilization of silence and long takes gives the film an imperative sense of realism. Many of the scenes in Shithouse actually feel like the viewer is just watching two 19-year-olds talking in a room, which is a very difficult feat for a movie to pull off. Honestly, the overall look of this film is just impressive when you consider the shoestring budget Raiff had. This film was made for an extremely small amount of money, but Raiff was able to take advantage of the technology he had in order to assure that it never really looked “amateurish.” Admittedly, there is some choppy editing in this film that, while seemingly purposeful, does feel a little abrupt in the moment. Still, that is a minor flaw for a young first time director making a film with virtually no money.
Honestly though, despite the great job Raiff did as a director, it is not the technical work that makes Shithouse such a special film. It is the script, which manages to pull off the difficult task of being both wildly endearing and brutally clever. While the dialogue—which is the driving force behind this film—may not include the most memorable or perfectly crafted lines ever written, the themes and ideas that appear in the on-screen conversations are ingenious. And truthfully, it is okay that the dialogue doesn’t sound like an Aaron Sorkin script because it is supposed to reflect the way real teenagers speak to each other, which it does perfectly. This is perhaps the best example of young movie characters actually sounding their age that I have seen since Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. In his realistic sounding dialogue, Raiff explores themes such as what it means to make a genuine connection with someone in a digital age, and the anxieties that can accompany that. He also touches on how our pasts and upbringings can have major effects on us and our relationships as we mature. Moreover, I found it fascinating the way Raiff portrayed the struggles that accompany leaving your comfort zone for so many young people today. He is seemingly interested in the dichotomy that exists between young people projecting themselves/sharing their life online, yet struggling to put themselves out there in real life. One theme in Shithouse that feels particularly haunting during the coronavirus pandemic is Raiff’s exploration of loneliness, and the impact that feeling alone has on a person. Raiff approaches all the ideas in his film with a somewhat calming sincerity though. I feel like if these same ideas and themes were to show up in a film made by someone older, it would feel too explanatory or too much like a lesson being taught to the audience. Given Raiff’s age though, the only thing Shithouse really seems to being saying to its audience is “You’re not alone, life is hard and none of us actually know what we are doing.” Or, to steal a quote from Alex’s roommate in the film, “Been there.” There is something both beautiful and comforting with that being the overall message of Shithouse.
If it is not clear enough already, I absolutely recommend people check out Shithouse on VOD. And, while I’ve been mainly focusing on what this film may mean for young people, it’s a movie that I feel would actually be appealing to anyone who feels like they don’t know what they are doing in life, which is a roundabout way of saying that this is a movie for everyone. Because in one way or another, we’ve all been there.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5