Cinematic history is chock full of movies about college. After all, it’s the first taste of freedom, a journey to adulthood and independence, and there’s no end to the dramatic possibilities it provides. But often, these films feel like college viewed through rose-colored glasses. Maybe more of what a screenwriter wished their collegiate experience looked like rather than what it actually was. Because the truth is, college is weird. Sharing a bedroom with a stranger at eighteen is weird. A group of people who have likely never been without adult supervision living in a building where the only adult supervision is a random sophomore is weird. Hundreds of teenagers all simultaneously learning how to function as humans is weird. And there’s no film that captures the bizarre, funny, and deeply awkward experience of life at university better than Shithouse.
Alex Malquist (Cooper Raiff, who also makes his directorial and screenwriting debut here) is having kind of a rough freshman year. His roommate is perpetually blackout drunk, and he somehow missed that period during the first week of college where you’re supposed to meet the people who will be your support system until you get well and truly settled in. He eats every meal by himself, and has gotten to the point where he’s made up a group of friends to lie about to his mother in desperation. You can tell from the very first scene when he’s having an extended conversation with his favorite stuffed animal that this is going to be a kid who struggles. But he also comes across as incredibly endearing in his painful awkwardness, and it’s a testament to both the writing and Raiff’s naturalistic performance that Alex seems earnest and well-intentioned rather than creepy.
Miserably homesick, Alex decides to distract himself by going to a frat party at an off-campus apartment auspiciously referred to as the Shithouse. There, he meets RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula, perhaps best known as Xanthippe from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and they immediately have a connection. They spend the entire night together, having the sort of meandering adventures and deep conversations that only happen when you’re eighteen, slightly drunk, and deeply infatuated. But when the sun comes up, it’s hard to tell if the spark is still there. Alex imagines that things are finally going right for him, that this is the meet-cute at the beginning of his adorable college rom-com. But Maggie…well, Maggie’s tough to get a read on.
Shithouse succeeds because it is so remarkably adept at bottling up the essence of college, the insular world that develops where a campus becomes a microcosm of an entire universe. The excitement of the relationships that are born and evolve over seemingly minor encounters that somehow only ever happen at college. When else are you able to wander around drunk in the middle of the night, come across a group of people playing an impromptu game of softball in a field, and then somehow, as if by magic, those people become your best friends?
Raiff and Gelula have a natural chemistry together, their conversations charming and witty but never too self-aware. Over the course of the night, they bare their souls to one another with dialogue that feels entirely too real. The next morning, they hurt each other, their vulnerabilities too exposed in sunlight to reach the same level of honestly. Maggie is cruelly dismissive, Alex is painfully oblivious, and they both struggle to find a way forward. But all of their coping mechanisms and idiosyncratic behavior reveal more about who they are than an entire night of drunken confessions.
You read the name Shithouse, and maybe you think this is going to have the same level of emotional complexity as a Van Wilder film — drunken coeds and raunchy sex parties on every corner. But Shithouse is for the kids who weren’t college legends, who didn’t automatically get invited to all the coolest parties. It’s for everyone who cried in their dorm room, or sat alone in the cafeteria, or tried to turn the barest of small talk into some kind of a friendship, until finally one day they woke up and felt at home. For the adults those kids grew into, Shithouse will feel like pure, weapons-grade nostalgia.
Shithouse is available on VOD now.