Autobiographical in feeling only, Shithouse doesn’t shy away from taking a dump on the early days of college. As anyone who attended out of state can attest, that initial week or two is terrifying. Pangs of homesickness constantly make you second-guess leaving home for four more years of social awkwardness. For Alex (Cooper Raif), it means displacement from an unconditionally loving mother (Amy Landecker, underrated and brilliant as ever) and sister (Olivia Welch). The Texas boy trades his boots for sandals but finds that California is only as sunny as its weather. Fellow students and dorm dwellers are anything but welcoming.
Raif, who also wrote and directed this feature debut — based on his 55-minute short of the same name — is perfectly cast as a well-intentioned, emotionally fragile college freshman with no sense of direction. Even his casual wardrobe tries too hard. Oh, and Alex also has telepathic conversations with his trusty stuffed animal dog. There is no judgment, only concern.
Taking underhanded insults from his roommate Sam (Logan Miller, whose onscreen antics never get old) is the first step in the unspoken hazing process. A reprieve comes in the form of a party announcement: a frat pad named “Shithouse” is hosting a “rager” for incoming freshmen. What an apt title for Alex’s collegiate blues! It’s also a great excuse for him to drown his nerves with alcohol. Little does he know, a fateful encounter at the party sets in motion an unforgettable night of whirlwind romancing.
The woman who will rock Alex’s world for one night (and possibly more since this is a rom-com) is Maggie (Dylan Gelula, an immense well of talent). The pair aren’t exactly strangers since she happens to be his resident assistant. Without power dynamics keeping things strictly professional, the two quickly fall into a pattern of flirt and observe. However, a previous intercourse dare splits the two apart, but not for long.
After that copulative mission aborts prematurely, Maggie and Sam reunite. The next few scenes mark a remarkable gender role reversal. Maggie is a dominant force of sexual energy who makes her quick intentions known. The apprehension surrounding the speed of the hookup results in a failed first attempt. No matter, Maggie is unbothered and takes a genuine interest in continuing the night with this wide-eyed, naive newbie. Maggie wears her sophomore experience like a badge and has no problem easing Alex into college life.
The pair’s naturalistic dialogue — which is not as improvised as you’d expect — maintains magnetic force throughout their memorable evening stroll. Inspired by Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy to some degree, but with a distinctly different aim, Shithouse basks in the intimacy of new connections forged. The more words shared, the greater Alex’s confidence grows. Maggie also seems to be enjoying herself, her witty demeanor slowly unraveling into stark confessions. She has a strained relationship with her dad, something Alex can’t fathom happening with a parent. In his eyes, their different upbringings are irrelevant — he’s hooked. Love-at-first-sight might be an immature notion, but Maggie hits the max level on Alex’s crush-o-meter.
The aftermath is when Raif’s script rises in relatable value. When a good experience is shared, but individual feelings don’t match the next day, emotional catastrophe ensues. Watching these character meltdowns is eye-opening; older viewers are reminded of the fresh pain that comes with rejection. Conversely, younger audiences watch in fear of what’s to come with future romantic entanglements.
While Raif is proud of how his narrative concludes, something so organic doesn’t require tidy closure. Thankfully, the dramedy has more assets than demerits. Passion, vulnerability, and authenticity decorate one of the most realistic college movies in recent memory. Ignoring the stresses of schoolwork entirely, Shithouse views on-campus human interaction as the only education with lasting impact.