Shithouse is an attention-grabbing title for a film. It’s a title likely to put some people off, which is a pity because Cooper Raiff’s feature debut is a fantastic film.
Writer/director Raiff also stars, as a homesick dorky freshman at university miles from where he grew up. Alex has no friends, is nervous and generally out of his depth. As the film opens instead of being in bed with a girl he’s almost by accident managed to get somewhere with, he’s out on the street having a panicky phone call with his mother. He cries. The baby.
Co-star is Dylan Gelula as Maggie, the sophomore Resident Assistant at his dorm block, who Alex meet-cutes in just a towel after his jockish, party-animal room-mate locks him out of the room they cagily share.
He falls for her… hard. And she… well, she might have fallen for him too. But if Alex is confused about everything because it’s new and he doesn’t know how to deal with living on his own, Maggie is the sort of girl who has a box of condoms in her bedside table. She finds sex easy. Relationships not so easy. The slut.
Having established the thinnest of connections at yet another frat party, this unlikely couple joust, mock-joking about serious things and being mock-serious about jokey things, sharing a bottle of wine together as the wander about the night-time streets talking, talking talking, their mutual nervousness eventually morphing into a bond.
At one point Alex tells Maggie that his dad died. “Did that affect you?” she asks. “What… my dad died?” he pings back at her with arch incredulity.
How brilliantly observed and carefully written these scenes are between him and her, and how brilliantly played too, Dylan Gelula absolutely beguiling (me, anyway) with her portrayal of a young woman adept at hiding her insecurity.
There are other lovely performances in this film – the actors playing her friends, but most particularly Logan Miller as Alex’s room mate, Sam, a guy given to chugging beer, shitting his pants and offering the sort of advice about the way to treat women (ignore them!) that Alex is unlikely to accept because he’s hopelessly smitten.
Everything rings true. Raiff gets it all remarkably right.
A romance, goddamit, not a comedy drama, which is what the imdb is currently suggesting, it’s structured in absolutely classic style – boy wins girl, boy loses girl etc – and if you’re after viable comparisons then you’d have to look at early Richard Linklater, and at Before Sunrise, first and best of the Before trilogy, which saw Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in similar territory. I’d say also Normal People (though this was made first) for its exploration of a nervous young love so wary of the power of the emotion that it sabotages it. There’s something of that here too.
This couple, though, Alex the sensitive male and Maggie the cock-chasing female, flip gender expectations in ways that will doubtless have the Cultural Taliban foaming at the mouth, but make for an unusual drama giving both parties somewhere to go, and a conventional landing ground when they get there.
The best films wrap the viewer up in a bubble that exists for as long as the film can successfully keep disbelief, the outside world, at bay. This does that in such a totalising way that at one point I had to pause the film so I could take a breath on Alex’s behalf, before he engaged in his final desperate attempt to win the heart of fair lady.
They’re meant to both be 19, Alex and Maggie. In an attempt to find something negative to say about this film, to keep the notion of balance in play, I’m going to point out that both of them look older, because the actors are. And you can pick on that nit all you like.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020