By Richard Ades
In 1995, director Richard Linklater brought together an American man and a Frenchwoman for an overnight session of talk and romance. The result was the indie film Before Sunrise.
This year, writer/director/star Cooper Raiff has brought together two college students for an overnight session of talk, commiseration and (a little) romance. The result is the indie film Shithouse.
Though the new flick is inferior to its predecessor in ways that go beyond its unappealing title, it still has something to offer. For starters, it’s a heartfelt look at the difficult transition college life represents to people like shy freshman Alex Malmquist (Raiff).
A Texan who’s spent much of his first six months at a California university hiding in his room, Alex finally decides to break out of his shell. When perennially stoned roommate Sam (Logan Miller) tells him about a party at the frat home known as “Shithouse,” Alex is game. Or, at least, he thinks he is. Once there, he panics when a girl tries to get intimate, then flees and calls his mom (Amy Landecker) just to hear her reassuring voice.
The night is salvaged only because, back at the dorm, Sam has a drunken accident that makes their room uninhabitable. Escaping to a common area, Alex meets up with his resident adviser, Maggie (Dylan Gelula), who is having a similarly bad day due to the death of her pet turtle. She invites him back to her room, where a brief attempt at sex gives way to an eventful night of walking, talking and an impromptu funeral for her lost pet.
It’s this part of Shithouse that is most reminiscent of Before Sunrise, and the comparison is not altogether flattering. Raiff’s dialogue is brisk but can’t match the earlier film’s engrossing debates on philosophy and life. Also, though Alex and Maggie are engagingly played by Raiff and Gelula, the script tries a bit too hard to define them.
Alex grew up with loving parents (though his father is now deceased), while Maggie’s father deserted her when he divorced her mother. These facts serve as shorthand explanations for their very different reactions to college life—and, as it turns out, to the night they shared.
After waking up in Maggie’s bed the next morning, Alex is shocked to find that their experience didn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to him. Friction and awkwardness follow, including much that is funny and much that rings painfully true. As a result, both characters undergo important changes, leading to an ending that is inconclusive, yet gives us hope for each of them.
…Except that it’s not the end. Instead, Raiff tacks on a final scene that takes place two and a half years later. Why, it’s hard to say, as it leaves us wondering just what we’ve missed.
Despite this and other missteps (including the name itself), Raiff’s first directorial effort boasts originality, humor and honesty. It may not be worth the two sequels (and counting) that Before Sunrise inspired, but it’s at least worth a look.
Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)
Shithouse (rated R) opens Oct. 16 at select theaters (including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center) and though VOD outlets.
By Richard Ades
Reviewing TV isn’t usually my thing, but I couldn’t resist the chance to sample Nehama. I figured the Israeli dramedy might be a passable substitute for Shtisel, an addictive Jerusalem-set series whose third season has been delayed by the pandemic.
Well, the first thing I should say is that the hourlong newcomer bears little resemblance to Shtisel. While that show centers on Israelis whose lives are shaped by their ultra-orthodox beliefs, Nehama is about countrymen who are largely casual about their faith. It’s actually more like an Israeli version of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, as it also centers on an aspiring comedian: Guy Nehama (Reshef Levi), who wants to revive the standup career he gave up years ago when he became a family man.
One big difference between the two: While Mrs. Maisel seldom seems tied down by parenting duties thanks to her helpful parents and an amenable ex, Nehama finds his time constantly being monopolized by his five kids. This is especially true after he loses his wife, Tamar (Liron Weissman), in an accident that’s foretold in the series’ very first scene.
Actor Levi, who also created and co-wrote the series, portrays Nehama as a neurotic man prone to spasms of hypochondria and self-pity, paranoia and anger. When we first meet him, he’s basically Tamar’s sixth child, as he needs constant attention and reassurance—needs she meets with a mixture of patience, exasperation and humor. That makes things all the more difficult for Nehama when he must take over the parenting duties previously handled by his late wife.
While we watch Nehama struggle with varying success to meet these new obligations, we also learn more about the people around him, including married but childless brother Oren (Shalom Michaelshwilli) and co-worker Dana (Gala Kagen), who harbors a not-so-secret crush on her suddenly available colleague.
Thanks to flashbacks, we also learn new information about Tamar, who sacrificed herself more than Nehama ever knew. A particularly important development turns up in the sixth episode, the last one provided to reviewers.
Nehama has a few things in common with Shtisel. Both are alternately funny and sad, and both complicate their characters’ lives with soap opera-like dilemmas that are often of their own making. The new show’s mercurial title character is especially prone to bad choices, which may frustrate some viewers.
But hang in there long enough, and you’ll likely be sucked into its tale of a man who’s belatedly learning how to become an adult.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Nehama (in Hebrew with English subtitles) will be available in the U.S. beginning Oct. 15 on Topic, a screening service from First Look Media.