Don’t be fooled by the title — Shithouse is an endearing comedy with an honest and vulnerable portrayal of college life, in this stunning debut from a young cinematic talent.
Meet Alex (Cooper Raiff), a freshman student at an LA university, 1500 miles away from home. It’s already several months into his first year at college and Alex hasn’t made any friends yet. Desperately missing his mom (Amy Landecker) and sister Jess (Olivia Welch), he wants to transfer to a school in Dallas so he can be closer to them. One day, he asks his roommate Sam (Logan Miller) if there are any parties that night, and the two go to the “shithouse,” the local party house in the campus neighborhood. At “shithouse,” meets his RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula), and after the party back in their residence hall, she invites him to come hang out in her room. What begins as a late-night conversation and hookup becomes an adventure across campus and town to bury Maggie’s deceased pet turtle Pete, and, as the two begin to bond, Alex finds his first meaningful connection at college, thinking that not all hope has been lost. The next morning, however, Alex is shocked to learn that, after this big night, Maggie acts as if nothing had happened, leading them both to reflect on themselves and their relationship.
Shithouse is the brainchild of 23-year-old Cooper Raiff, making an impressive feature film debut as leading actor, director, writer, co-producer, and co-editor. While it’s a daunting task to juggle all these roles, Raiff gracefully balances his duties in front and behind the camera, injecting wit and charm into a clever screenplay and the memorable character he plays. As Alex grows throughout the story, we are taken on a journey that satisfies emotionally and narratively, even if the ending wraps everything a little too easily. As an actor, Raiff imbues Alex with an instantly affable presence and doe-eyed look, as well as the emotional range to transform between quiet loneliness and eager enthusiasm. The rest of the cast also excels, given plenty of comedic moments to shine, like Sam’s cringey stand-up routine and a drunk phone call from Jess. The character tropes are familiar—the lonely freshman, the annoying roommate, the concerned mother, but the characters themselves feel properly fleshed out as real people on screen, not stock stereotypes. Every line of dialogue feels natural, from mundane conversations about random topics like the color of pedestrian traffic light signals to the pauses and cadences the cast speaks with.
While not particularly flashy in its style, Shithouse quietly uses its images for clever, economic visual storytelling. Shots inside dorm rooms are static and contained, capturing the sense of confinement inside campus housing. Scenes at parties too convey a similar sense of place, with crowded frames full of students, and occasionally colorful lighting that offers more excitement as a new setting for Alex. Meanwhile, cinematographer Rachel Klein shoots night sequences with ease, giving enough visibility to the characters onscreen while also maintaining the dark exteriors. Klein also keeps establishing shots low-key, avoiding the more impressive or cinematic-looking campus architecture, instead on more pedestrian locations like dorm hallways or spots outside dining halls.
The ambiguous location isn’t meant to be a major university, rather a small campus in a city neighborhood, reminding us that not all colleges are enormous institutions with frat houses and buildings with classical columns. While the cinematography succeeds, unfortunately the editing feels uneven, with a few scene transitions that occur too abruptly as new locations are sometimes introduced too hastily.
Most impressive about Shithouse is its attention to detail, offering a grounded depiction of the college experience. Raiff perfectly captures familiar college experiences, like late-night adventures on a Friday night and parties spent nervously standing around, waiting to interact with someone. Even minor details like the awkward tension of trying to make conversation with a roommate, cold showers in residence hall bathrooms, and being locked outside your dorm show us the unromantic, everyday side of college life that deepen our immersion into a realistic cinematic world and will no doubt resonate with many college-aged viewers. Raiff has much to be commended for with this stunning feature film debut that imagines college onscreen in ways that few films achieve, navigating themes of loneliness, romantic naivety, and even sex with honesty and vulnerability, perfectly balancing emotional drama and comedic beats with ease.
Shithouse opened in US cinemas and on VOD on October 16, 2020, and is currently available to watch at home.