Early on in Shithouse, the main character Alex does two things no male college freshman should ever do: He has a conversation with his stuffed animal and cries. I say “should” because I think a lot of us who went far away from home for college understood instinctively that there were certain “dos” and “don’ts” about surviving the experience at a new school with new people in a new city. Guys are so conditioned to act like nothing fazes them — they certainly don’t get homesick, god forbid — that it’s considered social suicide to show any sign of weakness in that environment.
Which is why it’s so remarkable to watch Alex reveal such naked vulnerability. Of course, he hides it from the people around him — like his doofus roommate Sam (Logan Miller), who’s trying very hard to prove what a party-hearty bro he is. Because Alex is played by Cooper Raiff, who also wrote, directed, produced and co-edited Shithouse, it’s tempting to read this story as autobiography, and certainly the film’s sensitive, emotional tone seems to stem directly from Alex’s gentle demeanor. (For the record, Raiff has said, “Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people.”) No surprise, then, that this slight, understated low-budget drama is about the dangers of opening yourself up to other people — and the consequences when you try and fail.
Six months into his freshman year, Alex has, by his own admission, no friends. Going to school in L.A., he frequently calls home to Dallas to talk to his widowed mom (Amy Landecker), needing to hear a friendly voice. (His stuffed puppy communicates with him through subtitles we see on screen, speaking Alex’s most forbidden thoughts — specifically, the idea of transferring to a college closer to where he grew up.) Alex seems friendly and likable enough, but he hasn’t entirely adjusted to the idea that college is his new home, and so he’s not quite there, disconnected from everyone around him while drowning in his isolation and homesickness.
That’s when things start looking up. After getting locked out of his room, he asks for help from his R.A. Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore who, like every R.A. that has ever existed, doesn’t seem particularly interested in her residents. (For example, she doesn’t even know Alex’s name.) Their brief encounter leads to a later run-in at a Friday night party off-campus, where they quickly realize that they’re the only interesting people there. Rather than staying, they go off together to talk and get to know one another.
Eventually, they end up back at her room. In that yeah-sure-why-not way that hookups often occur in college, they start making out, just ‘cause, and engage in some pretty awkward sex. But instead of that being it, they decide that they don’t want the evening to end. On the pretense of finding a proper outdoor burial spot for Maggie’s tiny pet turtle, they take a night stroll, meeting random strangers and discussing their lives.
Before Sunrise is often cited as a precursor to Shithouse’s laidback, dialogue-heavy style, but I was also reminded of the forgotten, hard-to-find 2007 indie comedy In Search of a Midnight Kiss, where a man and woman go on a blind date during the day on New Year’s Eve. In college and my 20s, I was enraptured by the sheer pleasure of just walking around with an attractive, engaging woman in a big city — the possibilities for romance and adventure seemed limitless. Those movies captured that elation, and so does Shithouse, although Raiff’s feature debut is intentionally minor. Alex and Maggie aren’t harboring any dark secrets — there’s no big twist awaiting the audience — and nothing they talk about is particularly profound. He’s a lonely guy who thinks he may have finally made a connection. She’s a confident woman who has other suitors but chose, for whatever reason, to give Alex a try. Simple as that.
But the key differences in the ways these two characters interpret their evening will prove crucial to Shithouse’s second half, which finds Alex puzzled by her blasé reaction the next time he sees her. I don’t want to spoil too much, but what I think Raiff (almost) gets absolutely right is his critique of this sort of sad-sack nice guy, which ends up being far more critical than we normally see. Because Alex is introduced as a sweet, homesick outsider — far nicer and more sensitive than his disphit roommate and some of the movie’s other college students — there’s a tendency to empathize with him and relate to his situation. (Who of us hasn’t felt terribly alone at some point in our lives?) And so when he meets Maggie — because we’ve all seen movies like Shithouse — we think we know where the story is headed. But, this time, we’re wrong. Sure, Maggie had a nice time with Alex, but it wasn’t… magical. Life isn’t how it plays out in the movies. She had fun with the guy — who said it had to mean more than that?
What I like best about Shithouse is its modestly feminist viewpoint, illustrating how often we assume that the male character will sweep the female character off her feet because, hey, he’s a sensitive guy. Instead, what Raiff presents is a real-world scenario that too rarely plays out in films: Alex is a good person, but just because he likes Maggie, that doesn’t automatically mean that she has to feel the same way in exchange. And, more importantly, that doesn’t mean she’s a “slut” or a bad person. (In an earlier era, a movie like Shithouse would probably demonize Maggie because she doesn’t necessarily want a steady relationship — as if being monogamous was the only acceptable happy ending for all rom-com characters.) As likable as Alex is, true love is actually not what he really needs to break out of his funk. It’s something a lot more intangible and internal, which means it’s a lot harder than just wooing one pretty R.A. Even sensitive good guys have to grow and change.
I wish Shithouse had gone even further in that direction. It would be unsporting to give away the film’s ending, but let me just say that I found it a little more feel-good than I would have preferred. Raiff’s debut radiates a lovely, low-key vibe that speaks to the random encounters that happen in college — that person you start talking to in the line for the bathroom could be your soulmate or someone you never see again — and it’s wise about the ways that those accumulated happenstance run-ins help inform us during our formative years. Shithouse embraces the messiness of being young and taking a chance on being vulnerable. But the tidiness of its resolution somewhat papers over the hard-earned lessons we learn in college that, often, prove more valuable than anything we’re taught in a classroom.