'Shithouse': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Courtesy of Rachel Klein
An on-target debut about an underexposed kind of character.

Cooper Raiff stars in his writing-directing debut, playing a college freshman who hasn't entirely managed to leave home.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

Movies about boys in high school and college spill over with reckless partiers, nerdy loners and aggrieved misfits eager to show the world what they're made of. They're much less often about guys like Alex — an outwardly normal young man you'd assume was popular, but who silently longs to go home to his only friends in the world, his sister and mom. First-time writer/director Cooper Raiff plays to his performing strengths as the protagonist of Shithouse, making Alex a shy but winning character who, as he tries to woo a fellow student (Dylan Gelula), doesn't fit mama's-boy cinematic stereotypes.

Well pitched and briefly suggesting a less intellectually ambitious kid brother to Before Sunrise, the film's only serious misstep is its name: Though it's true a party at a communal campus dwelling called The Shithouse sets the story in motion, that moniker's in-your-face vulgarity could hardly be less representative of the story's gentle, sad protagonist. (Shithouse won SXSW's narrative feature competition, which was held despite cancellation of the physical event.)

We meet Alex in the Los Angeles dorm room he shares with Sam (Logan Miller), a hard-drinking slacker who wants nothing to do with him. Halfheartedly trying to make plans to attend a campus party, Alex is tempted to take the advice of the stuffed animal he brought from home, a silently loving puppy who says, in telepathic subtitles, "You tried. Let's go home."

Somehow, Alex does manage to get himself out to that Shithouse party, where he bumps into his dorm floor's resident adviser Maggie (Gelula). She flirts, but with both her and another girl, Alex shows an impressive ability to miss sexual cues. Back at the dorm, when the two of them are the only insomniacs awake, Maggie practically has to lead Alex to bed by the hand for him to get the drift: "You mean to kiss and have sex?" Yes, dummy.

The night morphs from a thwarted hookup into something that, for Alex at least, is better: The two find themselves walking around town all night, sharing intimate memories and establishing that Alex isn't the only one of them who's unfulfilled by the party scene surrounding them. It looks like the start of a long-term college relationship, but once the sun rises, Maggie can't get him out of bed quickly enough.

What started as an exploration of the magical, unlikely connections an idealistic youth lives for pivots into a poignant clash of notions about how to be a human being. Maggie, baffled or disgusted that Alex assumes he's part of her life now, dons impenetrable emotional armor and hops into bed with the next stranger; Alex, in between tearful calls to mom (Amy Landecker), struggles desperately to understand what's going on.

Raiff is so credible in the part one can't help but suspect there's a lot of him in Alex; the film's willingness to look so frankly at his vulnerability, in an unmanipulative way, feels especially refreshing now. The picture doesn't understand Maggie as well as it does Alex; but it allows Gelula to deliver a more complex variety of defensiveness than she did in her angry-teen role on Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt. Like Alex, the film may just need to be patient with the possibility that she doesn't fully understand her behavior herself.

Production company: CMR Productions
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker, Logan Miller
Director-screenwriter: Cooper Raiff
Producers: Divi Crockett, Will Youmans
Director of photography: Rachel Klein
Production designer: Teddy Padilla
Editors: Autumn Dea, Cooper Raiff
Composer: Jack Kraus
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Jessica Lacy, ICM

101 minutes