Shithouse, like college, is probably not for everyone. The very title may offend the more refined or conservative readers of this website, who would be further offended by the coming-of-age film’s rampant profane language and drug-and-alcohol consumption, not to mention candid and crass dialogue about sex. Yet those who dismiss the film based on its title alone may miss out on a deeply affecting and profound portrayal of late adolescence which pays tribute to the coming-of-age tradition even as it forges new emotional pathways. That 23-year-old Cooper Raiff wrote, directed, edited, and stars in his feature-length filmmaking debut is itself a remarkable feat. That this film also won the Grand Jury Prize for Narrative Film at the online 2020 SXSW Film Festival should further pique our interest.
Shithouse centers on Alex (Raiff), a lonely college freshman from Dallas doing his best to navigate university life in California. Life at home with his mom (Amy Landecker) and little sister (Olivia Welch) was, in a word, awesome. In contrast, college life in the concrete dorms with zero friends is disappointing. Alex’s roommate, Sam (Logan Miller) is a pot-smoking jerk who is quickly on his way to alcoholism. But Sam is the entirety of Alex’s social life; beyond a stuffed dog who sometimes talks to him in subtitles on the screen, Alex is alone and lonely. More specifically, he’s homesick. And anyone who has ever been away from the comforts of one’s home can certainly relate. But through an encounter with his sophomore R.A., Maggie (Dylan Gelula) at a party, both Alex and Maggie might discover themselves anew.
It’s in this sense of discovery, where both people awaken to a new vision of themselves through the intersubjectivity of their relationship, where Shithouse really shines. The dialogue is sincere and spontaneous without feeling totally improvised, and while Jay Duplass is given special thanks in the credits (he helped get the film produced), the film isn’t strictly mumblecore. The comparisons to Richard Linklater feel obvious and appropriate, but the film’s formal dynamics, narrative structure, and humor aren’t anything Linklater-esque. Indeed, like every young adult, Raiff has borrowed from these influences (Duplass, Linklater, perhaps Judd Apatow) and built a cinematic identity wholly his own. Somehow the film captures the sentiment of early college life in a way that feels strikingly fresh and guileless without becoming narcissistic in its autobiographical roots. It’s a humble film, through and through, and that is inviting. When Maggie and Alex go on a late-night walk to a local hilltop in order to bury her dead pet turtle, it comes across as authentic and sweet rather than cutesy or twee. Their conversation reveals an interiority to these college-aged characters which other films (and, indeed, people in real life) overlook—the university students I teach are remarkable individuals with profound (albeit sometimes undeveloped) views. They’re learning! They’re growing! They don’t know everything, but they also know enough to know that they don’t know everything, and want to know more. When their conversation suddenly turns to the question of belief in God, I didn’t, even for an instant, find the topic sudden or strange–this is what late-night semi-tipsy is-this-romantic-or-just-friends conversations are like. There is beauty to be found in the everyday. What’s more, the family dynamic portrayed between Alex and his mom is a rarity in film, in that it appears to be a genuinely healthy parent-child relationship, one marked by honesty, care, and a fiercely committed love. When Alex calls his mom and comes clean about his homesickness, I genuinely wept because of the love on display. And maybe that’s what makes Shithouse feel so special—the film clearly loves these characters, and it wants us to fall in love with what it seems in them. And if we give the film a chance, we will.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11618536/