The American college experience is truly like no other, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way or a bad way — it’s just the reality. For the most part, going to university in the USA means four years of a plexiglass-freedom where hundreds and hundreds of people around the same age come together to study and cohabitate in an environment where excessive alcohol consumption is the norm and everyone is expected to adopt a social facade. The effects of this are not at all congruous, and it is not unfair to say that normal emotions — excitement, sadness, loneliness, confusion — are heightened as a result of constantly being held in the gaze of other young adults, those who either inch their way or catapult themselves into this uncharted territory with reckless abandon. Cooper Raiff’s debut film Shithouse captures this culture through its protagonist in an incredibly authentic way, imbuing a sort of nostalgia in me that I could never have even anticipated beforehand.
Alex, played by Cooper Raiff himself, is already six months into his freshman year of college at the beginning of the movie, and from the start it is evident that he is not experiencing college in the same elated way as most movies depict it. He spends most of his free time alone in his room or entertaining lukewarm small talk with a roommate (Logan Miller) he doesn’t particularly like. He also calls home daily, to speak with his mUm, played by Amy Landecker. After getting locked out of his room after a shower in the communal floor bathrooms, he officially meets his floor’s resident assistant, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and the two form a connection instantly that night during a party at the so-called “Shithouse” (which is also fairly accurate descriptor for any one of the many houses I spent late weekend nights in during college). The same is true for Alex, and when he is forced to leave his dorm room later that night, he and Maggie spend the entire rest of the evening together, between an attempted hook-up and deciding on burial plans for Maggie’s deceased turtle. After an evening of never-ending discussions, Alex finally feels like he has found a niche in college, but the next day, it’s as if the day prior was a fever dream, and his sensitivities are treated as trivial by Maggie.
Shithouse is a blanket of comfort for all of those in college who feel that they have not found their place yet, and serves as a reminder of how far one may have come. It shines in moments of unmitigated truth, with the ongoing conversations between Alex and Maggie that have the same warmth and familiarity of conversations between Céline and Jessie in the beloved Before trilogy, except these are anchored unmistakably in 2020 American college life. The awkward filler conversations between practical strangers in unknown places as well as the perpetual feeling of never knowing where you stand with someone are such familiar sentiments that make the premise of this film more true than any other American college drama, and Raiff depicts shows his characters a moderate empathy that is not often begotten onto college students — homesickness is a quite maladie that constricts in a malignant way, yet college students are so often portrayed as fearless beings with a penchant for solely partaking in fun.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel: for the plot, I won’t elaborate — but for the film, it is the actors’ freshness and exactitudes when emulating these strangely heightened emotions. It is so evident how Raiff was moved by his own experiences, and this film will no doubt so many in unexpected ways; it may even jerk a tear or two. Shithouse wades in the power of convictions that arise during the onslaught of adulthood, and ultimately, it provides a subtle portrait of a very niche yet ubiquitous time in the lives of many.
Shithouse is out in select US cinemas and on VOD now
by Ariel Klinghoffer
Ariel K. is a bilingual Philly native transported across the Atlantic to France. She has degrees in Neuroscience and French, but is currently teaching English and experimenting with other things like film, writing, and photography. She thinks films are some of the strongest forms of activism, especially ones that construct the female gaze, and would trust her favorite filmmaker, Céline Sciamma with her life. Her favorite favorite film is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, her favorite book is Normal People, and her favorite candy is Kinder Bueno white. Twitter: @qqnenfeu. Letterboxd: @qqnenfeu