Shithouse (2020)

Rates: * * * *

Why Did I Watch It? Recommended by fatiekitz.

Cast, crew, etc

Freshman Alex is having a tough time at college. Originally from Dallas, now going to school in LA, he is struggling without his usual support network of friends and family. Normal college stuff is getting him down; his roommate is a dick, and he is not that into his classes. He is also painfully shy, and so struggling to meet people and make new friends. Lonely, he’s thinking of transferring back closer to home.

At a party, he meets Maggie, a much more outgoing type he feels an instant connection to. After a couple of false starts, they both almost hook up with someone else, they spend the night together. But this is not just a sexual encounter; Maggie’s pet turtle has just died, so they decide to walk to the top of campus to bury him. On the way they encounter other students drinking and hanging out, and they end up having a long, rambling conversation about their lives, a la ‘Before Sunrise’. There’s a bit of magic here, and Alex is smitten.

But the cold, sober light of the next morning brings a different perspective. And one of the great strengths of this movie is that, having executed a bunch of classic rom-com tropes with perfect charm, it then turns them on their head. One special night doesn’t make a relationship, and getting together with a new person is not that easy. While Maggie seems to like Alex, she is completely turned off by his sudden insistence that they be together. She is fine with casual sex, but not looking for anything else, and recognises that Alex is feeling lost and would latch onto anyone that crossed his path.

Twenty something Cooper Raiff uses ‘Shithouse’ to show off his precocious talent; the young film maker wrote, directed, produced and edited. He also delivers a likeable performance as Alex (although he does overact a little, at times). One of my favourite aspects of this funny and well observed movie is this character; there have been a lot of films about young misfits, but I have rarely seen one so unafraid to embrace a character’s uncoolness. Alex is not just shy, but overly emotional, a sook, talks to his mum too often, cries all the time. He has great traits as well, but he is very immature, and it was refreshing to see how honestly this was depicted. Movie misfits, even nerds, normally have an enormous reserve of self confidence, and their outsider status is eventually championed. This film is about a guy who needs to learn a little about how the world, and other people, work.

He is paired with Dylan Gelula, who is terrific as Maggie. While she does sport the self confidence that he lacks, a lot of this is on the surface. She is still figuring things out, as you are meant to at this age, but is better at looking like she isn’t. The film reveals that she is from a broken home, which bothers her more than she lets on, and the actress conveys the impact of this on her daily life. She shows her chops in a variety of scenes; playful and sweet during their big night together, spiky and acerbic when Alex gets too intense.

The film has a playful touch at times, and some very funny jokes. Alex has a toy dog that he takes advice from – at one point it advises it’s ‘Just throwing shit out’ – and there are laughs as he grapples with his roommate, a bro party boy who also, very ineptly, tries to help Alex with his problems. This guy’s stand up set, at ‘Open Mic and Muffins’, is super unfunny, and so hilarious.

The film wraps with a happy ending coda. Alex and Maggie sort out their shit, and normalise their friendship. Flash forward two years, and Alex has evolved; he is still goofy, but he has matured and made friends. College is working for him now. Maggie’s interest is piqued, she wants to date him, and the film ends on that note. And I was not sure about this part of it. While I liked both characters, and their interactions had believable chemistry, I would have preferred the ambiguity of an ending where this is not resolved, and a future relationship for them is only a possibility.

Or maybe I am just being a bad sport. The ending is super upbeat, and it definitely works on an emotional level. I am just not sure Maggie would come around to this guy, or should. But the film has a lot to recommend it; truthful, surprising at times, sincere, and funny. A great showcase for some new talents. Also watched an excellent Q and A moderated by David Erhlich, where he spoke to Raiff and Gelula, and it was fun to see how closely they seemed to match their onscreen personas, in real life.

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