Being a sensitive person can present many unique challenges. Believe me. I know… because, I am one. This involves struggling to cope with feeling overwhelmed by the stress of modern life and all the sensory and emotional information picked up along the way. Someone’s mood can quickly impact your own. Large crowds — well, before COVID — instill anxiety. And don’t even get me started on busy schedules.
Now, imagine being a young Texas boy, stepping into college for the first time. Your best friends are your mother and sister. You’re out of state. You know no one. The opportunities are infinite. You can start over and can be someone else entirely. After all, isn’t college where you discover your identity? The confidence is building up. You meet your roommate, who seems to know what's up on campus. You attempt to strike up a conversation. You ask a question, and they respond. Suddenly, you don’t know how to reply to their response. Abort! Abort!
Filmmaker and actor Cooper Raiff gets it. With his breathlessly intimate and funny directorial debut, IFC Films’ S#!%house, Raiff takes a commonly told story but puts a fresh spin on it. We’ve seen our Animal Houses and Everybody Wants Somes, featuring characters larger than life or comfortable in their own skin. However, how about someone who is incurably homesick and often cuddles up with a stuffed wolf? It seems absurd on paper, but Raiff grounds the story with such authenticity that it’s indescribably moving. It’s like watching a young Richard Linklater adopt the modern sensibilities of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. Raiff is a talent to watch, and S#!%house is his first great work.
In addition to putting pen to paper and calling the shots, Raiff is also one of our protagonists, Alex. Alex is a lonely college freshman from Texas who is embarking on a new journey in Los Angeles. He walks around campus with a grand sense of innocence and vulnerability as he tries to figure things out, like: Why do survey questions not offer more multiple choice? As Ethan Hawke would say in Boyhood: “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” If you’re expecting things to come easy as circling “A,” “B,” “C” or “D,” it won’t be.
Experiences are on the horizon for Alex — cold showers, getting locked out of your dorm room, meeting people, going to parties, and helping those who cannot help themselves. Everyone has their baggage before they enter college, and Raiff paints that reality very well. Each character, no matter how big or small the part, causes you to say, “Ooh, I know that person!” or “That person is me!” It’s as if Raiff had been taking notes his entire life and wanted to home in on the truth of what it’s like to go through that universal transition. That moment when you’re on your own for the first time. When you’re confused about what to do when you’re not feeling well, and you call your mom to ask what you should do. (I’m a 30-year-old man, and I still have to call my parents about stuff.) It’s learning to grow. You want to live in your childhood and be an adult at the same time. The contemplative nature of this film is remarkable.
Moving onto the next significant, relatable chapter: Raiff impeccably captures that magical night when you meet someone special. It’s like you’re genuinely falling deeply in love in a matter of hours. From strangers to best friends who you don’t want to let go of. You share your life over the course of the evening, maybe a little mischief, and the occasional quest to bury a pet turtle.
The film also centers on Maggie (a very good Dylan Gelula), the young woman whom Alex meets at the titular house party. Maggie also happens to be Alex’s resident assistant, and the two spend the rest of the night getting boozy and deciding what to do with Maggie’s recently deceased turtle (who we meet alive at the film’s start) and unspooling family troubles. They walk and talk all night, never a dull moment.
S#!%house is super simple. We get a taste of what life is like on campus during the bookended sequences, and then the next 40 minutes are the events of one night — which is why a filmmaker like Linklater comes to mind. With movies like the Before trilogy and Dazed and Confused, Linklater focuses not on crafting hugely cinematic scenes where characters suddenly die in a car crash to collect a quick emotional response. Everything unfolds as it would in real life. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes a moment of intimacy can go south, an argument can force you to evaluate your actions, and you try new things that you wouldn’t otherwise.
There’s so much to unpack in Raiff’s film. It very much plays out like one of those nights where you’re having a great time hanging out with friends and loved ones, talking about worries, and learning a lot about yourself. At the end of this movie, just like you would during one of those nights, you ask: Whoa. Where did all the time go?