Writer/Director Cooper Raiff has created a breakthrough movie about college, college students and the college experience. Sound impossible? How about if I add that Raiff is also the lead actor in “Shithouse”. And that Raiff is only 23-years-old and this is his feature film debut in all three roles.
The title refers to one of the party houses on the campus of California’s Occidental College. Raiff plays freshman Alex. He left Dallas, and his mom and sister (to whom he’s very close) for college. And he’s had a hard time adjusting, especially socially. His only friend is a stuffed animal he brought from home.
One night Alex meets sophomore Maggie (played by Dylan Gelula). They “hang-out” in their dorm and experience some awkward intimate moments. But a connection happens. They will spend the night together — first at a party, then walking around campus and the neighborhood. The two share very personal details about themselves and their lives. These are two lost souls who, amazingly, have found each other. But this story, just like real life, isn’t as easy as all that.
“Shithouse” is being called the college version of “Before Sunrise” — and that’s spot-on. About half of the movie is this evening of Alex and Maggie simply walking and talking. Their conversations are as authentic as any captured on film. Raiff has admitted his screenplay is semi-autobiographical — and that’s no surprise. He gets everything right about college life (roommates, classes, not fitting in, the party scene), as well as leaving your most caring people behind and the illusion that you can instantly form a bond with total strangers.
There’s some early offbeat humor, but the material gets deeper and heavier. Both Raiff and Gelula give grounded and thoroughly believable performances. We instantly attach to these characters, wanting to continue exploring them as they’re exploring each other.
Raiff was discovered by director Jay Duplass a few years ago after he posted a short version of the film online. Duplass became his mentor of sorts, shepherding this project. The result: the Narrative Grand Jury Prize at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival.
One bit of advice: When you’re watching “Shithouse” on VOD consider stopping the movie right before the epilogue (you’ll know when). The final five minutes are completely unnecessary, and don’t gel with the previous 90 minutes.
Still, this is one of the most impressive movies – and individual accomplishments – of the year.