Review: ‘Shithouse,’ starring Cooper Raiff and Dylan Gelula

October 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Shithouse”

Directed by Cooper Raiff

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the romantic 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.

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

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.

Review: ‘Project Power,’ starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Amy Landecker and Courtney B. Vance

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“Project Power”

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the action thriller “Project Power” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  An underground drug called Power, which has the ability to give people superpowers for five minutes each time the drug is ingested, is at the center of a power struggle between criminals, cops, a man on a revenge mission and the teenage rebel enlisted to help him.

Culture Audience: “Project Power” will appeal mostly to people who like “race against time” stories that have sci-fi elements, numerous fight scenes and gory visual effects.

Dominique Fishback in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

How do you get a superpower? In fictional stories, there are so many ways. And in the world of the action thriller “Project Power,” getting a superpower means swallowing a capsule pill called Power that can have one of two results: give someone a superpower for five minutes or immediately kill the person who ingests it. And in the world of “Project Power,” people are each born with a superpower that they won’t know they have until they take the Power pill that will unleash the power. When the pill kills someone instantly, it’s usually a bloody and gruesome death, such as someone’s body self-exploding.

Is it worth the risk to take the Power pill? That’s a dilemma that characters in this movie, which is set in New Orleans, constantly have to face when they have access to Power. Of course, this is the type of drug that’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the underground/illegal status of the pill makes it even more valuable, especially to criminals. It’s why in the beginning of the movie, New Orleans is pretty much under siege by criminals who are taking the drug to commit and get away with violent crimes.

It’s during this chaos that three people’s lives collide: Frank (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who’s secretly ingesting Power to fight criminals; Robin (played by Dominique Fishback), a feisty teenager who’s been selling Power; and Art (played by Jamie Foxx), a military veteran who likes to call himself “The Major” who’s out for revenge. (The reason for Art’s vendetta is revealed in the movie.)

Frank knows Robin because she’s the one who sells Frank his Power pills. To ensure her loyalty, he also buys her a motorcycle for her birthday. Frank’s superpower is that he’s bulletproof and can can heal quickly from any injuries.

Frank is involved in a big chase scene with a robber, and it becomes almost impossible for Frank not to hide that he’s taken a Power pill, based on the superhuman way that he was able to be immune to deadly bullets. It might only be a matter of time before Frank’s boss Captain Craine (played by Courtney B. Vance) notices that Frank has superhuman abilities on the job.

Meanwhile, Art rolls into the area from Tampa, Florida, because he’s on a revenge mission. He has to do some investigating into who is responsible for a crime that he’s avenging. He knows that the people he’s looking for are involved in dealing the Power drug. Art stops by the apartment of a lowlife named Newt (played by Colson Baker), who takes a Power pill when he figures out that Art is looking for him and there’s going to be a big fight. This showdown between Art and Newt kicks off a series of high-octane action scenes that involve a lot of mayhem, blood and destruction.

Art and Robin “cross paths” when Art kidnaps her and basically forces her to help him on his mission to find the crime lord responsible for overseeing the illegal sales of Power in the area. Why? Because Robin is a local drug dealer of Power, and Art figures that she can be easily pressured into giving up information that will lead to the higher-ups on the drug-dealing hierarchy.

When she finds out the reason why Art is hell-bent on revenge, Robin becomes more sympathetic to him and a willing ally. But Frank is after Art because he’s convinced that Art is one of the bad guys. And so, Robin is somewhat caught in the middle, and she has to decide which person she can trust more.

The two chief villains of the story are Biggie (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who’s a typical scumbag type who inevitably takes someone hostage in the movie, and Gardner (played by Amy Landecker), the type of boss who walks around in power suits and gets other people to do the dirty work. There’s nothing inherently scary or memorable about these two generic villains.

“Project Power” (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) is the type of movie where the characters are constantly chasing after or at the mercy of something that can “get into the wrong hands.” The main reason why people will want to see “Project Power” is to see what type of superpowers that characters will get to when they take the pill. The movie is essentially a showcase for these visual effects and chase scenes.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an African American teenage girl have a prominent role in an action flick, when this type of role usually goes to male actors. On the other hand, “Project Power” (written by Mattson Tomlin) falls back on some over-used and negative stereotypes that African American teens in urban areas are criminals, because Robin is basically a drug dealer.

And the movie has this other tired cliché about African Americans: This teenage drug dealer is also an aspiring rapper. If this role had gone to someone who isn’t African American, it’s doubtful that the character would be a drug dealer/wannabe rapper. There’s a scene in the movie where Robin does a freestyle insult rap to a teacher who tries to discipline her.

The movie also has Robin as another African American negative stereotype: She’s the product of a financially deprived, broken home: She lives with her single mother Irene (played by Andrea Ward-Hammond), who’s struggling with an unnamed illness, and Robin has to be her caretaker. Andrea has no idea that her daughter is a drug dealer, even though it’s obvious that Robin’s minimum-wage, part-time job at a fast-food joint isn’t the reason why Robin has enough cash on her to help with the household bills.

All of these negative stereotypes would be extremely annoying if not for the fact that there is some redemption for Robin, and “Project Power” doesn’t spend a lot of time on these lazy and unimaginative clichés. What saves this movie from being a mindless set of action sequences is that Foxx and Gordon-Levitt have a push-and-pull rapport that is very entertaining to watch. Fishback also has some moments where she’s a scene-stealer.

“Project Power” also has some not-so-subtle messaging about how power (or the idea of having power) can be so addicting that people will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means risking death. There are some scenes where superpowers that are only supposed to last five minutes seem to go longer than five minutes. But most people watching this movie aren’t going to sit there and nitpick by keeping track of the length of time that the superpowers are really in effect. They just want to a lot of thrilling action scenes and at least one “freak creature” that hasn’t been seen before in a movie.

Netflix premiered “Project Power” on August 14, 2020.