Of the many reasons we watch movies, seeing ourselves (past or present) reflected back to us provides a feeling of being understood. The importance of that cannot be understated. When we identify with the characters onscreen or the situations in which they find themselves, it's a powerful thing. Shithouse is a film about a college freshman having trouble acclimating. As I watched its main character deal with his struggle, I emotionally flashed back to my own freshman year when, for the entire first semester, I listened to music on a Walkman whenever I went to or came back from class so I wouldn't have to talk to anyone. The headphones didn't come off until the professor walked in, and they went back on the second class was over.
Eventually, I worked through that, thank goodness. My reason for telling you this isn't to talk about myself, it's to tell you how observant Shithouse is. Writer/director Cooper Raiff has such a great feel for how people talk and behave and relate to each other. I heavily identified with it, and you might too. This is the kind of movie you just want to hug.
Aside from his duties behind the camera, Raiff also stars as Alex, the struggling freshman. He misses his mom (Amy Landecker) and little sister back home. His roommate Sam (Logan Miller) is an obnoxious drunk. He has no friends, except for the stuffed animal he brought with him. Awkwardly standing against the wall at a party, he strikes up a conversation with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), his resident assistant. They meet up again after the party and unexpectedly hang out together for an entire night. During that time, they open up to each other, starting to form what Alex thinks is a real connection. The next day, however, that changes in a way he doesn't anticipate.
Shithouse is about what people expect or look for in college, and how different those things can be. Alex has an idealized vision of higher education, one full of close, intense friendships. When reality proves different, he doesn't know how to adapt. Maggie, on the other hand, is a sophomore, so she's already worked through some issues. She believes the whole point of college is to learn how to be independent, which is essentially the opposite of Alex's point of view.
What happens when the guy who wants closeness meets the girl who's guarded about how far she'll let anyone in? That's the magic of Shithouse. Raiff and Gelula (Support the Girls) create characters who feel like real people. Odds are, you either were one of them or knew one of them. True-to-life dialogue rolls off their tongues in a natural way, peppered with likes and you knows. Part of making it socially in college is being willing to reveal yourself to strangers. Alex does that with Maggie, experiencing the thrill that comes from finding common ground with another person during a period of insecurity. A new friend of any sort can feel like a lifeline that first year in college.
Both stars are excellent creating that dynamic, as well as the dynamic that follows. Alex could have been annoyingly whiny, except that Raiff makes his sadness genuine. We can't help feeling sympathetic for this guy as he flounders. Gelula has been in other films, but she gives a potentially star-making performance here. The actress hits the exact right note with Dylan – that she wants to have as much fun as possible in college without letting anyone else define her.
The only area of disappointment is the ending. Raiff doesn't seem to trust his material. After giving us a perfect finale that tells us everything we need to know about Alex and Maggie, he adds a coda that takes place two-and-a-half years down the road. The film doesn't need this, because it's spelling out details that we could – and should – surmise for ourselves.
Even though it should have ended three minutes sooner, the rest of Shithouse is impressively spot-on. Any time a movie tells its story with so much truthfulness, it's a reason to celebrate.
out of four
Shithouse is rated R for language throughout, sexual content and drug/alcohol use. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.