Cooper Raiff’s “S—house” is perhaps the only movie for which I would pay double the price of admission just to see a montage of how all the theaters in America that have booked this puckishly named indie choose to represent its title. With symbols, like the movie poster (i.e., “S#!%house”)? Censored with asterisks or dashes, as Variety does, to protect its more sensitive readers? Or will they display the offending word in all its scatological glory, thereby making their marquees look as if a bunch of college kids sneaked in and rearranged the letters for a laugh?
In any case, it was probably funnier to imagine cinemas labeling themselves as a dump — or the place one goes to take one — back before the coronavirus outbreak brought them to the brink of extinction. Now, I bet Raiff wishes he’d given the film a more enticing tile, like “The Time Is Now,” or maybe just “Open for Business.” Timing hasn’t been great for Raiff, whose endearing debut was set to premiere at SXSW just as America started to go into lockdown. The festival was canceled, but the competition went forward, and the jury gave Raiff’s low-budget marvel its grand prize. We haven’t seen what else is in the mix, so it’s hard to say whether they made the right call, but one thing’s certain: There’s real potential in this scrappy first feature.
Raiff plays Alex Malmquist, an Occidental College freshman who’s been having trouble adjusting to the idea of being a self-sufficient 19-year-old so far away from his family back in Texas. Alex can’t stand his roommate (Logan Miller), isn’t serious about classes and has no idea where to find the parties … or the girls, for that matter — all of which is probably a lot more common than most college movies let on. Alex cries a fair amount (that seems unusual), but the movie joins him at precisely the moment he seems to be figuring it out. He may have been a late bloomer, but in “S—house,” he actually manages to attend multiple parties over the course of one weekend — the first of which gives the film its name, taken from an Occidental party house.
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Almost right away, a young woman (Abby Quinn) starts hitting on him, dragging Alex back to his room for some anonymous sex, but Alex invents an excuse, slips out of the party and calls his mom (Amy Landecker). Audiences probably already know where this is headed, since Raiff and co-editor Autumn Dea have started cross-cutting between Alex’s scenes and those of another student, a sophomore RA named Maggie Hill (Dylan Gelula) — a technique that typically means the film intends for these two characters of opposite genders to wind up together. Why not? They certainly make a cute couple: Raiff looks like a taller, skinnier Oscar Isaac, while Gelula suggests a young Karen Allen.
To Cooper’s credit, the young writer-director-star contrasts his character’s emotional vulnerability with a very different attitude on Maggie’s part. Earlier that first night, she had a liaison of her own (which fizzled for reasons one doesn’t often see in teen movies), and when she spots Alex back at the dorm, she entices him to her room to “hang out” — millennial code for hooking up.
Cooper brings enough honesty to this different-pages dynamic — she rushes into sex, he’s looking for romance — that one can easily imagine him going on to write projects that connect with his generation, if only someone would take him under their wing, the way Judd Apatow did Lena Dunham (Jay Duplass coached Raiff on his debut). But “S—house” is no “Tiny Furniture,” even if both films won SXSW (full disclosure: I was on the jury that gave Dunham her prize, so I’m hardly impartial). This is a modest film, well-acted but rather clumsily assembled, that almost certainly would have benefited from an in-person SXSW, where it’s possible to bask in the shared laughter of an enthusiastic first screening.
Watching it at home alone is a different experience — a little too close to the isolation Alex feels. The movie borrows the discursive getting-to-know-one-another formula from movies like Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” but doesn’t give its characters anything particularly memorable to say. (“I have like zero friends,” Alex shares. “My turtle died today,” Maggie replies.) Still, there’s something to be said for being so specific, and these exchanges feel real, rather than generic. Alex’s overall situation is relatable, even if its outcome seems trite. For things to work out, Alex has to open up and become a bit more social, whereas Maggie has to overhaul all of her ideas on intimacy — which “S—house” sets us up to want, even if her resistance to deeper connection might have yielded a more complex film. That’ll come with a bit more life experience, whereas this is a promising start. Let’s just hope Raiff picks a classier title when it comes time to do No. 2.