A night for sharing thoughts and burying turtles

Alex (Cooper Raiff) is having a hard time adjusting to college life in Shithouse.

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.

Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Cooper Raiff) share a momentous night.

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.