When I looked online and saw the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center was going to be playing a movie called “Shithouse,” I was immediately intrigued.
The title for the film is a bit dramatic, so I was curious to see what the actual film would end up providing. I purposely avoided watching any trailers before the film so I would be surprised by the story. With a title like it has, the film was sure to provide at least some sort of fun experience. What I didn’t expect, however, was an immensely emotionally resonant film about growing up and finding one’s self.
“Shithouse” was written and directed by 23-year-old Cooper Raiff, who also stars in the movie. Raiff is a self-taught filmmaker, and “Shithouse” is his debut on all fronts, which is outstandingly impressive considering the film won the top film prize at South by Southwest this year.
The film is very personal to Raiff. It tells the story of a young man named Alex who is moving from Dallas to California for college. The film begins during his freshman year and follows him as he copes with homesickness, social awkwardness and all of the general anxieties of being on your own for the first time. It’s a uniquely college experience, and Raiff tells the story with brutal honesty.
“Shithouse” doesn’t portray college as this crazy experience where everyone is getting drunk and laid every night without any sense of responsibility. While there is plenty of that cliche intertwined within the film’s depiction of college life, the film isn’t afraid to explore all of the maladroitness that comes with it all. There’s really no point where Alex knows what he’s doing, but he’s trying to put himself out there to have some semblance of a positive college experience.
Early in the film, Alex meets a girl named Maggie at a party. The two adventure around Los Angeles, playing baseball with strangers, getting to know each other on a personal level and holding a makeshift funeral for Maggie’s recently deceased pet turtle. The two end up hooking up, and the next morning they’re on completely different pages with each other. Alex forms a bit of an obsession with Maggie, and he wants to spend every minute talking to her. Meanwhile, Maggie just wants to leave the night in the past and go her own separate way.
This relationship between Alex and Maggie — who is wonderfully portrayed by Dylan Gelula — becomes the driving force behind most of the film. “Shithouse” explores both their mindsets. It pits their different personalities and perspectives on college and life against each other; the result is an incredibly dynamic and beautifully complex depiction of both mental health and self-awareness in college.
Though this relationship serves as the bulk of the plot, the heart of the film lies with Alex and his reluctance to let go of his home in Texas and embrace where he is.
To put it plainly, the film is about Alex discovering who he is. At the beginning of the film, he’s someone whose definition of himself stems from the relationships he has with others. Since he has made very few friends in college, his view of himself stems almost entirely from his family and friends in Texas. He still views himself through the lens of his high school friends and his parents.
Over the course of the film, however, Alex learns to stand on his own two feet. He learns how to be his own person and be more of an active character in his own story. It’s an incredibly satisfying and relatable character arc to witness, which makes “Shithouse” a film that not only keeps its viewers engaged, but actively reflecting on their own self images.
“Shithouse” was fantastic. There’s no other way to put it.
It’s a superb exploration of character and how to be comfortable in one’s skin. The fact that this is the first film to come from writer/director/star Raiff makes “Shithouse” all the more impressive. It’s one of the most accurate depictions of the college experience I’ve seen on screen, and I can’t wait to see what Raiff does next.