Credit: Rachel Klein
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Shithouse | Cooper Raiff

October 16, 2020

Shithouse marks a promising debut from writer-director Cooper Raiff, effectively capturing the awkwardness and insecurity of the collegiate experience.

One’s reaction to the coming-of-age dramedy Shithouse will likely depend on how one relates to its central protagonist, Alex (writer-director Cooper Raiff), a white, middle-class, homesick freshman struggling to adjust to collegiate life. Alex has a supportive mother and little sister 1,500 miles away who have yet to truly let go, making his transition even more difficult. He is also awkward, more than a little dorky in his earnestness, and blissfully unaware of his good looks, which makes the story that plays out actually believable. What I’m saying is, I was Alex, this movie was made specifically for me, and I will not apologize for the proceeding effusiveness. Taking place over the course of one semi-eventful weekend, Shithouse follows Alex as he finally takes the plunge into independence, the direct result of a lone night spent with his slightly intoxicated resident advisor, Maggie (Dylan Gelula, Her Smell). The first half plays like a less hyper-literate Before Sunrise, as Alex and Maggie spend the night getting to know one another as they engage in a wide array of activities ranging from an impromptu softball game to the burial of a turtle. The second half details the fallout from that night, as Alex struggles to understand why the one person he opened up to now wants nothing to do with him, prompting him to reexamine his own priorities. 

Shithouse is special for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that writer-director-editor-star Raiff is only 23 years old, and has based the film partially on his own collegiate experience. Regardless of age, this could be one of the most assured debuts in years. There is a specificity to everything on display here that marks it as something personal, and that authenticity is bracing. He understands his characters inside and out — not only how they sound, but also the way they act and react. All of the performances feel lived-in, as if we have known these characters for years. He gets the small details right, like the awkwardness of forced conversation that precedes an established hook-up, brilliantly captured in a four-minute unbroken take, or the way his two leads nervously re-cork a bottle of wine as they pass it between one another, giving their hands something — anything — to do. Raiff also knows when to revel in his character’s awkwardness, allowing shots that feature Alex’s lame attempts at humor to last a beat longer than normal, focusing on his own half-satisfied/half-embarrassed smile. Hell, the guy even accurately uses social media as a believable plot point, which is sadly unheard of in film today. Shithouse only fails when it tries to get too ambitious, such as a weirdly staged stroll down the street that partially cuts off his characters for no good reason, or a ten-minute epilogue that ruins what could possibly be one of the most perfect endings in recent memory. Raiff has time to learn, though, and Shithouse leaves one anxious to see where his journey will take him. This one is special.