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‘S#!%house’ happens

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Full disclosure: I love coming of age movies. I loved them when I was a kid. I loved them as a young man. And I love them still as I wander into middle age.

There’s a universality to the crossing of that particular Rubicon that I find appealing, a recognition of shared experience wherein the specifics might not be the same, but the big picture more or less is. A look at what it means to grow up, to start becoming the person we’re ultimately meant to be. I particularly enjoy those stories set in academic settings – the parallel educations that take place in those places.

Which brings us to … “S#!%house.” Yep – that’s the name. “S#!%house.”

But here’s the thing – the movie is as good as that name is terrible. This is a movie that won the top Jury Prize in the Narrative Feature section of SXSW this year. Virtual festival or no, that’s a big deal. It is a heartfelt and biting look at what it means to be a young person lost in a world they don’t fully understand and trying to figure out what happens next. Smart and sad and honest in the way of all top-tier indie filmmaking.

Oh, and it just happens to be the realization of an auteur’s vision – the film is written, directed and edited by Cooper Raiff, a first-time feature director at the ripe old age of 23. Oh – and he stars in it too.

Raiff is Alex, a young man in his freshman year of college. He’s at school in Los Angeles, far from his Texas home … and he’s not sure he’s in the right place. He’s struggling mightily to find his place, drifting through the cacophony of college life and not at all sure about any of it. He misses his mom (Amy Landecker, “Project Power”) and sister (Olivia Welch in her feature debut) and is wracked with homesickness and doubt. Maybe this place just isn’t for him.

In a last-ditch effort to engage with his surroundings, Alex takes the plunge and heads to the notorious S#!%thouse for a party (Note: if you ever attended college, you know where this house was. You may not have ever gone there, but you knew where it was. It might not have been called the S#!%thouse, but this is that place.)

There, he bumps into his RA Maggie (Dylan Gelula, “Horse Girl”) and everything changes.

What follows is one of the best nights of Alex’s life, an endless meander through the hours, the kind of empty-the-cupboards deep talk that only college kids can manage. Talk of love and loss and what it means to fit in. Something important and meaningful was shared.

Or at least, that’s how Alex saw it. Maggie’s feelings in the aftermath of that night are considerably different, and that connective disconnect drives the tension in the film’s second half, where Alex is left once again unsure of what to do next. Does he want too much? What are Maggie’s expectations? Does she have any? Is this the beginning of something real or the end of something that never really was?

This is stunning work for any first-time filmmaker, let alone one who is just 23. Of course, that proximity to the subject is certainly beneficial – there’s a rawness here that would seem to indicate that perhaps not all of this story is fictional in the strictest sense, and with Raiff playing the part himself, well … there’s a lot of power that comes with truth.

“S#!%house” beautifully captures the uncertainty of that time of life for the shy and unsure, the constant uneasiness in your own skin and the ever-present idea that everyone gets it but you. That sense of being lost, seeking something – or someone – to serve as your North Star, to guide you through what you don’t understand.

There’s a Linklater-by-way-of-mumblecore vibe to this film that is both unusual and highly effective, a wandering walk-and-talk energy that evokes all the nervous confusion and jumbled wanting that is so prevalent during that time of life. With lingering shots and faith in the performers – one of whom is himself – Raiff captures a moment that encapsulates the overall experience of being young and adrift.

(There’s a great story behind this movie’s development – specifically, that Raiff made the bold move of sending an early version of the film unsolicited to Jay Duplass, whose ensuing interest was what initially opened doors for “S#!%house” to grow into what it eventually became. Always nice to see a big swing rewarded.)

Let’s talk about those performances. It’s a bold choice for Raiff to cast himself in the lead here, but the undeniably personal nature of the story being told means that he’s likely the best choice as well. He brings forward the hangdog vibe of the aimless Alex, creating a guy that many of us have known (and some of us have DEFINITELY been). Gelula serves as the perfect counterpoint here; in her capable hands, Maggie becomes something we don’t often see – a person who refutes the Manic Pixie Dream Girl status thrust upon her by another while still maintaining an engaging quality to her edginess. Since “S#!%house” is largely a two-hander, chemistry is key; luckily, these two have it in buckets.

There’s something immensely and intimately relatable about “S#!%house.” It is a smart, heartfelt film that expertly captures the mindset of a certain type of young person. It is funny and cringey, with moments of passion and pathos alike. It is a phenomenal feat by a filmmaker whose name we probably should get used to hearing. Honestly, the only thing about this movie that doesn’t work wonderfully is its title.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 19 October 2020 10:09

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