It’s the start of a long night when “Shithouse” opens in the dorm Alex (Cooper Raiff) shares with his roommate (Logan Miller), the former wondering whether he can work up the courage to ask his more extroverted roomie whether there’s any parties going on. The small amount of gumption Alex does have is largely supplied by a stuffed animal he’s brought with him from Dallas, which psychically prods him towards speaking to others when he is incapable of doing so himself, and when left to his own devices, as he is at the titular location where a frat party is commencing, he can appear to be a deer in headlights, particularly when striking up a conversation with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), his RA and the only person he knows that’s there.
Alex may not have much conviction in himself, but Raiff, the guy playing him who also wrote and directed “Shithouse,” creates an unusually convincing relationship drama in the company of two underclassmen at Greenhill who are working through figuring out who they are when getting to know each other. Contrary to its provocative title, the film proves to be far more gentle than one would expect, but then that’s just one of many ways Raiff is able to put an audience in his characters’ shoes as Alex and Maggie gradually come to realize they are not exactly who they pegged the other to be, gradually trusting one another enough to talk about things they haven’t since leaving home for college and perhaps thought they wouldn’t speak of again. While Alex’s shyness has prevented him from engaging with others, making it a lonely freshman year, Maggie has gotten to her sophomore year living out someone else’s fantasy of consequence-free adult activities once away from parental supervision, but hasn’t been enriched by the experience and the two find a connection in craving the kind of conversation that’s proved elusive when sex seems to be more readily exchanged than words.
It would be easy to say that “Shithouse” reminds of “Before Sunrise,” but that would oddly be selling what Raiff does short when he creates an equilibrium between Alex and Maggie that resembles how generously Celine and Jesse were allowed to articulate their perspectives fully and thoughtfully with the ability to surprise each other time and again, but eventually strays away from the formula that Richard Linklater created for so many indie romances in its wake by striking a unique pace to survey the fallout from suddenly being the polar opposite of strangers and they try to keep up with the rest of a world that won’t stop moving on while for one beautiful moment, time stood still for them. Gelula, who’s shown a captivating gift for playing characters with a wisdom and a wariness well beyond their years since first breaking out in “First Girl I Loved,” is particularly strong as Maggie when emotions that the character had feared revealing begin to register on her face and the way Raiff catches them, both in his capacity as a director and as her scene partner, lets their raw power come through. Still, as one might suspect from its title, “Shithouse” is hardly pretentious, capturing the curiosity at this particular age as much as its uncertainty and in doing both, Raiff crafts a night you never want to end with a portrait of knocking on adulthood that is as entertaining as it is honest.