Connect with us

Shithouse | Review

Straight Flush: Raiff Surprises with Poignant, Loquacious Debut

Cooper Raiff Shithouse ReviewThe liberal arts school experience is a right of passage reserved for the privileged, and something which begins to seem less and less universal when winnowing down into stereotypes. So, the experience of something like Shithouse, the directorial and screenwriting debut from Cooper Raiff, who also stars, feels all the more impressive for its ability to find a strident poignancy in this tale of freshman alienation and strained romance.

Not so much switching as upending gender expectations within a heteronormative paradigm, it’s a sweet and simple narrative which makes excellent use of time and circumstance to convey, at least in a general sense, the mixture of freedom and malaise defining the college dormitory experience.

Alex (Raiff) is a lonely college freshman who uses a stuffed animal for company as he tries to successfully navigate an inert relationship with his annoying roommate Sam (Logan Miller). But Sam, an aggressive partier, knows where all the campus shindigs are, and Alex tags along to another typical collegiate revelry at Shithouse. There, he has an exchange with his RA, Maggie Hill (Dylan Gelula), who admits she’s on the prowl for a sexual liaison. Back in their room, the extremely inebriated Sam defecates on himself and becomes belligerent, leading Alex to sleep in the common area in his dorm. Discovered by Maggie, they chat, she makes a pass, and an awkward turn blossoms into a magical night of wine and communication, shared friendship with some random softball players, and a eulogy for a turtle. But when morning breaks and “rising senses begin to chase the ignorant fumes” of the previous evening, Alex finds his feelings crushed by the callous Maggie. Later that evening, when the next party cycle resumes, they meet again…

Raiff’s presentation arrives in the wake where these sorts of indie heterosexual perambulations have already been perfected. But Shithouse does pivot away from a previous generation’s values and expectations, if at least nominally. Contemporaneousness doesn’t allow Raiff to best, say, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and its two ensuing sequels, and neither Alex nor Maggie ultimately feel as interesting as the reverence held for Jesse and Celine (although, it’s not the most arresting jump off point for many characters at a transition which dictates a homogenous experience). Still, Raiff finds more authenticity and innovation here than in something like In a Search of a Midnight Kiss (2007), for instance, in which one night’s romantic shenanigans are supposed to set the fantastical stage for a life fulfilled, etc.

Whether he knows it or not, Raiff’s Shithouse actually feels more like a lowkey reassembly of something like Martha Coolidge’s original Valley Girl (1983) in certain aspects, such as Alex crashing back into the basketball house party, risking physicality to claim time with his love interest. Raiff’s characterization fares a bit better as Alex despite the likeable performance of both leads while supporting cast members provide their necessary accents to the narrative.

Raiff took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, an event which never really transpired due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the jury awarded the festival’s selections anyhow, what lends Shithouse an extra bit of edge is how its normalcy already plays like a time capsule (at least for the near future). But a pair of emotionally explosive sequences are what actually set this apart as something impressive, starting with the first major fallout between Alex and Maggie, in which parenting styles and developmental attachment issues become a dazzling part of an argument, and later during a teary exchange with his mother (a warm, but limited Amy Landecker) and sister in which he confesses his self-sabotage at college and his resolve to make a better effort. Again, these sound like small, familiar instances, but it’s rare and unique when such moments can land without exaggeration or manipulative artifice.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

Click to comment

More in Reviews

To Top