Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 14, 2020 12:13 pm 
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DYLAN GELULA, COOPER RAIFF IN S#!%HOUSE

Adjusting to college

S#!%house (as its poster spells it) has an observation of emotional detail of youth so achingly precise and sensitive is seems almost worthy of J.D. Salinger, except it takes us somewhere he never did, to college weekend loneliness and drunken coed frat parties. The intimacy is a miracle but has a partial explanation. It's personal. That is, presumably the 22-year-old writer-director-star Cooper Raiff put a good bit of himself in Alex, the lonely 19-year-old UCLA freshman he plays. Or at least he puts his most honest possible observation of emotional truth into Alex's minute-to-minute experiences during the weekend that occupies most of the action. But that hardly explains how he could write him so well and play him so engagingly. This is a "college party movie" that astonishes. Who would suspect such a genre could contain such emotional intelligence? This SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner, which sadly pandemic cancellations kept people from seeing as an audience in front of a big screen, is simply, really, good. It has some messiness, the ending is a little overelaborate, but as a whole it's a gem. (He can shoot hoops too, and jump fences. And he's good-looking.)

Alex is a very lonely freshman 1,500 miles from his home in Dallas. He can't stand his drunken roommate Sam (Logan Miller, in a thankless role that grows on you). He has no friends. As the movie opens he's on his bed talking to his stuffed dog. That's who he has to talk to. The dog (in yellow subtitles) says he needs to adapt to school and isn't trying hard enough to do that. Later, guided by Sam, who knows where the parties are, Alex goes to a frat called Shithouse. There, his sophomore RA, whom he does not know, wants to get laid, and picking him more or less at random, drags him back to the dorm. Her name is Maggie (Dylan Gelula). This is the meet-cute: bad sex, not sex at all.

Alex has trouble with the condom and can't get his mind around the whole idea. He apologizes and gets up to leave. But she wants to talk. So does he, very much, so he stays. He urges her to give her pet turtle, which she's had for 15 years and just died that day, a proper burial. They retrieve "Pete" from his shoebox in a dumpster and spend the night together. This is where it gets good. They join disastrously in a nighttime baseball game. Maggie observes one of Alex's many phone conversations with his mom (Amy Landecker) and sister (Olivia Welsh) back in Dallas. Alex is a guy who cries easily. And they talk and talk. And it gets good. Just the talk.

Maggie seems very sympathetic, and they have a wonderful night. After this night has happened, this connection, Alex begins to be transformed, and to start to face college. He knows he has so failed at adjusting to his new home on campus because his family life was almost too loving. There is sadness there: his father passed away. But there were so many hugs; his mom loves playing mom. (Raiff conveys that he's not simply a mamma's boy, that this was just a bit too much of a good thing, not anything unhealthy.) Maggie explains her parents, on the other hand, were shits who divorced and gave her little love. That, though, is in a way why she was ready for the little love of coming to college not knowing anybody. These night conversations between Alex and Maggie, in which they share many intimate details, are wonderful. They fall to sleep together on her bed.

But when he wakes up, she seems to have forgotten the great time they had and just want him away. The idea of breakfast burritos with him is anathema to her. She is very, very mean - he tells her so - but it's no use. He is devastated. This, however, is the beginning of change for Alex. Even though roommate Sam throws up and shits himself, Alex is sympathetic and starts to treat him as a person. Raiff conveys these things, Maggie's coldness, Alex's waking up to people around him, very deftly. After this, Alex starts making friends, or just feeling part of the group. Coming to life.

What follows is honestly never quite as engagingly staged as the scenes between Alex and Maggie. How could it be? But it almost doesn't matter. It's hard to convey just how particular and special this little film is, how much it charms. And not just Cooper Raiff, but the interesting personality of Maggie, as conveyed by Dylan Gelula - an actress Raiff campaigned hard to get for the role. The dialogue is a matter of the writer-director-star's keen ear for today's American collegiate speech and mannerisms and his even keener ear for his own emotional memories. The "2 1/2 years later" part is a little messy and confusing, perhaps. He seemed to need it to get to the happy ending, which is perhaps a bit of a wish-fulfillment one. Why not? With S#!%house, a remarkably fresh and disarming young talent has come on the scene. Some people think this title is a gaffe, masking the gentleness of the contents. In fact it correctly states the crude college milieu where the sensitive Alex must struggle to bloom.

Elsewhere Raiff has described how he made a version of this film in college during spring break, very rough, in a week, and sent to to Jay Duplass, who surprised him by watching it and meeting with him 12 days later. Duplass helped him make a real movie of it all, and he has said Duplass's name helped him lure cast members via Instagram.

S#!%house, 100 mins., surprised Raiff by being accepted into SXSW Apr. 2020. Sadly the festival was cancelled due to the pandemic, but its selections were judged and his won grand jury prize for narrative feature. Also scheduled for festivals (a thing Riaff says he has never attended before) at Florida, Zurich, Reykjavik, Mill Valley and San Diego. Metascore 79. To be released by IFC Films in select theaters and on demand Oct. 16, 2020.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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