Please Note: “Shithouse” was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. With the express consent of the representatives of the filmmakers, we present the review of the film here.
There may not have been a SXSW in 2020, but that does not mean there weren’t winners. Despite no event, the SXSW Film Festival named Cooper Raiff’s “Shithouse” the best film of the Narrative Feature competition. “Shithouse,” Raiff’s first feature, will undoubtedly be hailed as a breakout moment for the film’s writer-director-actor-editor-producer, and deservedly so. But in crafting a college love story with shades of “Before Sunrise,” Raiff has made a movie that has a lot more to say about his leading man than his leading lady.
Alex (Raiff) is having a rough first year of college. Cut off from his support system – his mother and younger sister, both half-a-country away – the young man spends his days avoiding social interactions by having conversations with his stuffed animal. One night, fleeing his roommate, Alex unexpectedly hooks up with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), the second-year resident assistant on his floor. Drunken foreplay soon evolves into a cross-campus adventure, and the two seem to be at the beginning of something beautiful – until morning comes, and both Alex and Maggie are forced to address their ongoing issues at college.
Much of the film is devoted to the cross-town adventures of Maggie and Alex. As their evening unfolds, their dialogue captures the kind of radical honesty that can only occur between two people who have just met. Raiff understands this type of honesty on a very intuitive level and does well not to underline these moments in the film. Alex admits for the first time that he has no friends at college; Maggie opens up about the recent loss of her turtle, Pete. The characters push each other because they can, and the pair admit things previously unsaid to loved ones—also because they can. The intimacy this generates is both accidental and inevitable.
In Alex, Raiff has created a character that feels like a reversal of many college tropes. He’s open in a way that some films would treat as a character flaw, but he’s also profoundly judgmental and slow to recognize his failings. It’s gratifying to see Raiff treat his loneliness as something he needs to address. At the same time, much of the film is spent validating Alex’s experiences. Even when he forms an unexpected connection with his roommate – or a much-needed one with a group of friends – “Shithouse” seems to suggest that he doesn’t need to change, just try a little harder. This absolves him of some of his more hurtful actions, especially in the aftermath of his one magical evening.
Compare this to how Maggie is treated. On paper, Maggie is given the short end of the stick. She is the first to “see something” in Alex, breaking him free from his homesickness and encouraging him to engage with the world around him. The film also suggests that she is her best possible self when encouraged to act less like herself and more like Alex. Maggie’s actions after rejecting Alex, then, are coded as immature or even self-destructive. In case there’s any doubt as to where the film’s sympathies lay, Raiff also gives Alex some of the film’s most cutting dialogue for good measure, making it clear that Maggie is the one who needs to lead a more authentic life. If we judged the film only by the last few words the characters exchange, the central love story of “Shithouse” would seem borderline abusive.
But Maggie does not only exist on paper. She also lives on the screen, thanks to the incredibly affecting performance of Gelula. Here she can take the most well-worn Manic Pixie Dream Girl tropes and create someone the audience comes to genuinely care about throughout the film. Raiff is wise to provide her with small moments throughout – emptying her fish tank after the loss of Pete or suffering the good-natured ribbing of her friends at the library – that hint at what Maggie may be holding back. These moments may not be enough to offset the Alex-heavy gaze of the film, but it at least allows Gelula opportunities to internalize Maggie’s experiences. In a typical festival environment, it would be a star-making turn.
All of this makes “Shithouse” a film that oscillates oddly between compassion and gaslighting. It’s hard not to fall a little in love with Alex and Maggie as they let down their guard and open up about their college experiences. It’s also hard not to wonder if these characters – especially Maggie – are genuinely deserving of the ending the film has to offer. When it comes to authentic love stories and everlasting meet-cutes, well, your mileage will have to vary. [B-]