Cooper Raiff’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner is a charming, honest look at the awkwardness of growing up
Seven months ago, Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse was set to have its premiere at South By Southwest. With its provocative title, the film surely would’ve grabbed the attention of festival goers. Despite the abrupt shift in, well, everything, Shithouse went on to claim the Grand Jury prize for Best Narrative Feature. Fast forward to this week and Shithouse makes its debut on VOD, and you should absolutely find room in your weekend plans for it. Shithouse is a lovely, melancholy story about one of the messiest times of anyone’s life: the post-high school period where we start to get the independence we longed for, yet have no idea how to navigate. It’s a messy movie about the messes that are a necessary part of our personal growth and development. It’s awkward, prickly, and honest. It’s also great.
Raiff wrote, directed, and produced Shithouse, and also stars as Alex, a college freshman struggling with being on his own for the first time. He gets along well enough people, but quickly retreats from people in favor of things that calm him down. That could be the stuffed animal he talks to instead of the roommate he doesn’t like or running from a potential party hookup to go call his mom. From the outside, it’s clear that getting out of his comfort zone is important for his growth. It’s an obvious sentiment, but it’s a space the movie lives in and explores in a way that is non-judgmental of Alex. Being non-judgmental is one of Shithouse’s biggest strengths. It understands that life is hard enough on its own and acknowledges that your struggles are as legitimate as anyone else’s and vice versa.
For the weekend that the bulk of the story takes place, Alex’s path crosses with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who contrasts Alex’s story in every way. They meet at a party, almost have sex, then spend the night walking around their small college town and talking. She comes from a broken home, and carries herself with a confidence that intimidates Alex. She’s confident where Alex is unsure, forthright where Alex is hesitant, and, most importantly, her problems are just as important as Alex’s. Raiff and Gelula are really great, separately and together. Their chemistry drives the film, and their vulnerability comes across when Alex and Maggie are together or by themselves. It’s easy to imagine a different version of Shithouse that centers Alex’s story in a way that minimizes everyone else’s. But Raiff eschews that myopic approach in favor of one that understands everyone has to deal with life in their own way. It’s not a profound thing, usually, but it’s one of those epiphanies that everyone has to have at their own speed. The script and direction are constantly validating everyone’s perspective, letting everyone make mistakes and live in those spaces without condemning them.
Shithouse is at its best when its characters are at their most vulnerable. Most of these moments come with Alex and Maggie, together and separately, and even though those two dominate the story, the script still makes room for other characters to have their moments, like roommates, friends, and random people passing through parties. There’s a communal tinge to the whole story, the sense that we’re all in this, whatever it is, together. We all have to navigate our own paths, but that’s something we can do together. There’s a selflessness to the storytelling that cuts through the selfishness of the individual characters. The more I sit and think about the movie, the more I like it. It’s an earnest and assured film. It deals with universal themes and ideas, but is made with the urgency of people living through it right this moment. Shithouse was robbed of its chance to build buzz and find its audience the traditional way, but available now and is worth making a fuss over.