When one considers a great piece of filmmaking, there are a multitude of boxes each film can check to showcase excellence. The beautiful thing about the medium of filmmaking is that, by and large, there are very few absolute rules. Enjoyment is a subjective phenomenon. After all, a subset of people have convinced themselves that they enjoyed The Room. But still, there are certain qualities almost every great film possesses, even if they aren’t immediately obvious.
Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse is a movie that has no business checking so many boxes. Starring, written and directed by Raiff, it started as a small project to upload onto YouTube. But make no mistake about it; Shithouse is a phenomenal film. And while it may not nail every beat or reshape your perspective, that’s okay. Because the box Shithouse checks more than any other is embracing its imperfections in a way each and every one of us can relate to.
The first five minutes almost tell us everything we need to know about this film. Our two protagonists, Alex (Raiff) and Maggie, are complete opposites. Alex, a freshman in college, is miserable. Barely able to hold a conversation with his roommate, he would rather talk on the phone to his mom and sister he left behind in Texas or have imaginary conversations with his favorite stuffed animal than put himself out there. The authenticity of this film is staggering. We feel his discomfort trying to get himself invited to the party at the water polo team’s frat house, nicknamed the “Shithouse”.
Maggie, on the other hand, appears to be thriving. A sophomore at the same California-based university, she is a resident advisor on the floor Alex lives on. Confident and wise beyond her years, Maggie spends her time doing what she claims college is all about: whatever she wants. Played by the wonderfully talented Dylan Gelula (Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Hulu’s Casual), Maggie serves as an answer to every question Alex has about figuring college out. And the beauty of their juxtaposition is that Shithouse does not ask you to pick a side. In a sense, there is truth to each character’s perspective.
After meeting at the Shithouse, Alex and Maggie begin a journey that takes them all around campus during which they discuss topics ranging from their mutual color blindness to Maggie’s existential fear of death. “That’s gonna happen to me too. You’re not alone in that.” Alex reassures her. This highlights a fundamental line in the sand that is drawn through their journey together. Maggie sees this time in their lives as a selfish one. A time when, for better or for worse, you are able to do what you want in pursuit of discovering who you really are and what you want. This perspective frees her from the burden of caring about who she hurts in the meantime.
Alex is the opposite. He views college as a time for people to come together and learn how to take care of one another. Which is why, halfway through his freshman year, his frustration at his peers is beginning to boil over. Alex’s struggle is compounded by not only the loving nature of his home life, but also the death of his father. Alex is empathetic, but lives with a subconscious fear of being hurt again. As his stuffed animal tells him, “you hate it here, but you’re not even trying.” Maggie’s carefree attitude stems from similar underlying motivations; her father left her family by choice and hasn’t spoken to her in years. So the audience is left with two people who have felt similar pain, but whose resulting perspectives could not be more different.
The subtle, accurate nuance with which Raiff handles each of these characters is the movie. Maggie jumps into everything. As they walk the streets of the college campus they see a late night softball game in progress, and are invited to play. “Should we tell them we can’t play?” Alex asks hesitantly. And while the movie continuously highlights the differences of these two people forming a bond, under the surface it is telling us something far more important: love requires compromise.
And that’s the beauty of this film. It tackles themes that are simple, but relatable, in a way that feels both authentic and genuine. There is no cape-wearing hero, nor a mustache-twirling villain. Our characters are complex. Their actions and emotions are earned. There is a sense of optimism in this world, one where, for the most part, people treat each other like Alex wishes they would. He just never got out of his head long enough to look around, which is what makes this movie so effective. We have all been there.