October 16, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Cooper Raiff
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy/drama “Shithouse” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A lonely college student has an up-and-down relationship with his dorm’s resident assistant.
Culture Audience: “Shithouse” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in low-key, low-budget, talkative movies about young people who fall in love.
The first thing that people should know about the drama “Shithouse” is that even though the title of the movie is about a party fraternity house on a college campus in this fictional story, this movie isn’t going to be like “Animal House.” In fact, “Shithouse” isn’t really about partying or decadent antics of college students. It’s an earnestly depicted story about a couple of students who have a romance that they don’t know quite what to do with when one person in the relationship wants more of a commitment than the other.
Cooper Raiff is the writer, director, editor and co-star of “Shithouse,” which takes place mostly at an unnamed college in Los Angeles, where Raiff’s Alex Malmquist character has moved from Texas and is enrolled as a freshman student. It’s the first time that Alex has ever lived away from home, and he’s had a hard time making friends at college. Alex is very close to his immediate family, which includes his widowed mother (played by Amy Landecker), who doesn’t have a name in the story, and Alex’s 15-year-old sister Jess (played by Olivia Welch).
It would be an understatement to say that Alex misses his family. He cries on the phone when he talks to them and seems to be experiencing separation anxiety. He’s so close to his mother that he could easily be described as a “mama’s boy.” Alex is beginning to wonder if he made the right decision to go to a college so far away from his hometown, but his mother encourages him to stick with his choice and try to make friends.
Alex has a stoner roommate named Sam (played by Logan Miller), who has a completely different social life from Alex. One day, while they’re both hanging out in their dorm room, Alex asks Sam if there are any parties going on that night. Sam replies that the only party he knows about is at Shithouse. Alex and Sam make plans to go to this party.
Meanwhile, the movie conveys that Alex is so lonely, he imagines that his stuffed toy dog, which he keeps on his bed, is talking to him. The dog’s “dialogue” with Alex is shown as subtitles on the screen. This stuffed dog is snarkier and more confident than Alex is in real life.
The conversations that Alex has in his head with the dog are obviously meant to show what the dog “says” is actually a projection of what Alex wishes he could say but he doesn’t have the courage to say it. Fortunately, the imaginary dialogue that Alex has with this stuffed toy is not in the movie for long, or else it would be a really insufferable gimmick.
The stuffed animal on the bed and the bouts of crying that Alex has when he talks to his mother indicate that he’s definitely a “man-child” who hasn’t fully matured. What makes “Shithouse” different from most other movies that are centered on college life is that the “man-child” protagonist isn’t all about sex, partying and causing mischief. It’s rare to see a movie depict a male college student have this type of homesickness and emotional vulnerability about being away from his family for the first time.
At best, Alex could be considered endearingly sensitive. At worst, he could be considered a privileged whiner who needs to grow up and understand that his problems are nothing compared to other people’s problems. The way that Raiff portrays Alex is as someone who is so sheltered that he isn’t even aware of a lot of serious issues in the world, not because he doesn’t care but because he just wasn’t raised that way.
Is Alex even mature enough to handle a relationship outside of his family? He’s about to find out when he accidentally locks himself out of his room when he takes a shower in the hallway bathroom, and he has to ask the dorm’s residential assistant, Maggie Hill (played by Dylan Gelula), to let him back into his room with her spare key. It’s a “meet cute” moment that practically screams, “The rest of the movie will be about this relationship!”
Maggie (who is an aspiring actress) is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She’s also a lot more self-assured than shy and hesitant Alex, who is immediately attracted to her. Alex and Maggie see each other again at the Shithouse party, where she just happens to be standing next to him in the coincidental way that telegraphs that they will eventually get together. Their first hookup is awkward because Alex has “performance issues,” but she invites him to stay overnight with her, and they spend the rest of the night talking and cuddling.
Alex is infatuated, but Maggie isn’t quite ready to jump into a serious relationship with anyone. Later in the movie, she opens up to Alex about how her parents’ divorce and her estranged relationship with her father has affected her outlook on love and romance. The rest of the movie is an emotional “push and pull” that Alex and Maggie have over their relationship.
Along the way, they join a casual team of softball players who like to play the game at night, there’s some minor drama over Maggie’s dead turtle, and the movie has very long stretches where Maggie and Alex talk a lot about random things, both deep and superficial. All of the supporting characters on this college campus really don’t do much but appear in and out of these conversations. There is no intrusive best friend, no demanding professor, no third person who causes a love triangle. “Shithouse” pretty much makes this movie all about Alex and Maggie.
The movie’s humor is very low-key and grounded in realism, which is refreshing when so many other movies with this subject matter would go for a lot of slapstick scenarios and/or a steady stream of jokes. And although there’s some “tit for tat” rapport between Alex and Maggie, the conversations sound authentic, not overly contrived. The dialogue is not on the same quality level as the 1995 talkative romance classic “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and July Delpy, because Alex is a lot more insecure and less sophisticated than Hawke’s “Before Sunrise” character.
However, Alex and Maggie’s relationship is more relatable than the one in “Before Sunrise.” That’s because people who’ve had college romances are more likely to have one that looks like Alex and Maggie’s relationship, compared to the relationship in “Before Sunrise,” which had the would-be couple first meeting while they’re traveling in Europe. Instead of having gorgeous backdrops during a train ride though Vienna, the relationship between Alex and Maggie plays out in cramped dorm rooms and during walks at night on a non-descript college campus.
“Shithouse” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. But it does present a gender role reversal of what’s usually in movies about romances between men and women. In “Shithouse,” the woman is the dominant person in the relationship who’s wary of commitment, while the man is the emotionally needy one who wants a commitment. Usually, romantic dramas are about the woman being clingy and wanting the relationship to go to the next level.
“Shithouse” is Raiff’s feature-film debut, and he admirably keeps a consistent tone throughout the film as a director, writer and editor. Raiff and Gelula give very good (but not outstanding) performances in portraying this seemingly mismatched couple who are at different emotional maturity levels. However, what’s interesting about “Shithouse” is that the movie doesn’t present in absolutes who might be “right” and who might be “wrong” in the relationship.
On the one hand, Alex is very unsophisticated about life, but he doesn’t play “hard to get” like Maggie tends to do. On the other hand, Maggie is a commitment-phobe, but she’s honest about why she’s got commitment issues. In some ways, Alex is more in touch with his feelings than Maggie is with hers. But in other ways, Maggie is more in touch with her feelings than Alex is with his. The question is if they can find enough common ground as a foundation to build their relationship, wherever it takes them.
“Shithouse” might not appeal to people who are expecting the usual hijinks that are in movies about college romances. This “slice of life” film realistically portrays that the college experience isn’t just one big party but it’s often when people start to find their identity and what they want out of life. The movie’s concept isn’t very original, but there’s enough authenticity in how this story is depicted that it can strike an emotional chord with people.
IFC Films released “Shithouse” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on October 16, 2020.