Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: For the final Watch This series of the year, we’re again highlighting some of the best movies of 2020 that we didn’t review.
Shithouse is a lovely college-set romantic comedy that has been inexplicably titled like a wannabe Harmony Korine provocation. Its distracting and unfitting moniker is one of the few missteps made by writer-director-star Cooper Raiff, in his first film in all three of those roles. Raiff plays Alex, a college student who’s more than halfway through his freshman year and has yet to make any kind of lasting connection with his classmates. Thousands of miles from his Texas hometown, Alex embodies a common loneliness nonetheless often ignored by college movies: He sincerely misses his mom (Amy Landecker) and little sister (Olivia Welch); he’s discomfited by the idea of drunken trysts; and he generally has trouble getting out of his own head. His roommate, Sam (Logan Miller), the kind of pot-smoking horndog who would catalyze wild shenanigans in a typical campus comedy, can barely disguise his contempt.
Sam nonetheless lets Alex know that the weekend’s big party is happening at a residence nicknamed Shithouse; Alex is the type of guy who immediately asks if there’s another party available somewhere else. There isn’t, and his attendance at Shithouse goes about as well as he expects. When he returns to his dorm, he has a chance interaction with his RA, Maggie (Dylan Gelula from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), a year ahead of him in school and vastly more socially comfortable with college life. At first, their conversation is awkward, leading to an equally awkward bedroom hook-up. But they grow more comfortable with each other through that reliable young-person standby of simply refusing to go to bed. Soon they’re taking a walk and embarking on their own Gen Z version of Before Sunrise. Maggie speaks with rapid-fire self-effacement, while Alex relaxes, at least a little bit, and opens up to the possibilities of college beyond the looming option of transferring somewhere closer to home.
The time frame of Shithouse covers a full weekend, not just a one-night walk-and-talk; in this way, it’s like a more melancholy version of another Linklater movie, Everybody Wants Some, with a similar feel for the flow of free time but less broing-out camaraderie. Most contemporary movies seem to think in terms of two options for male characters as sweetly sensitive as Alex: either paint them as a romantic hero, inherently deserving of whoever he pines after, or turn them into an obvious, overemphatic critique of that problematic “nice guy” persona. Raiff, presumably drawing upon some of his own very recent undergrad experiences, finds a nuanced way of avoiding these clichés, presenting Alex as both nice and needy, genuine and more than a little judgmental. He and Gelula have chemistry, but the friction they generate has some real sting, too. It’s equally easy to root for them and wonder if their connection is real—even as the movie’s ending overreaches slightly in answering those questions.
Shithouse is quite funny, too. Beyond the amusing banter he writes for Alex and Maggie, Raiff has a strong sense of when to use a wide shot for either comedic or emotional effect; the remove Alex feels from his college life is reflected by some slapstick gags that play out at a distance. This would have been an auspicious debut in any year, but it feels particularly notable mid-pandemic. (The film was a Grand Jury Prize winner at the South By Southwest film competition, which went ahead despite the actual festival’s cancellation, and was released commercially in October.) At a time when some colleges can’t safely keep students on campus, Alex’s and Maggie’s struggles, trivial as they might seem, serve as a reminder of the self-discoveries put on pause. While the movie’s tone doesn’t indulge too much nostalgia, its depiction of young people with the space to figure themselves out might prompt some anyway.
Availability: Shithouse is available to rent or purchase from Amazon and VOD providers.