It almost seems a shame to use a title as provocative as “S#!%house” — spelled out in its naughty entirety onscreen — on the charmingly handmade college romantic comedy hitting on-demand services this week. The movie won the grand jury prize at this year’s SXSW festival, and it marks the arrival of an earnest talent in writer-director-star Cooper Raiff. It’s also the rare youth movie to dispense with cynicism and wear its heart on its sleeve.
Raiff plays Alex, a gangly, sensitive college freshman who’s not having an easy time of it. His roommate (Logan Miller) is an alcoholic boor, and the only “person” who’ll talk to him is a childhood stuffed toy (in subtitles). His phone calls home to his mother (Amy Landecker of “Transparent,” playing nice for a change) are an exercise in fighting back tears. The movie is refreshingly honest about the stresses and depression that can come with being young, male, and unmoored.
The title refers to an off-campus party house where Alex, dragged by roommate Sam, encounters Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore and RA in his dorm. Awkwardness and sort-of sex ensue, but so does a long night of walking, talking, and emotional opening up. Naturally, Maggie wants nothing to do with him the following day.
With its hapless hero set on winning the girl, “S#!%house” has some of the DNA of classic rom-coms — but only a little. Raiff’s allegiances seem closer to off-Hollywood stalwarts like Richard Linklater, whose “Before Sunrise” trilogy is an obvious influence. Unlike that film’s Jesse and Celine, Alex and Maggie are tongue-tied and wary, revealing themselves in hesitant steps. If “Sunrise” was a quintessential Generation X movie in its chatty self-absorption, “S#!%house” is Gen Z all the way, with characters who are far more comfortable with their digital selves than in their own skins or next to someone else’s.
Raiff is a sympathetic and engaging lead, and Gelula has spiked the punch bowl of movies like “Support the Girls” and “Her Smell” — she lets us see how the hurt in Maggie has given her wit while hardening her skin. She and Alex make an interesting couple in part because she’s tougher than he is and in a way that he and we come to see as a liability. But “S#!%house” also has a beguiling faith in people — including that jerk of a roommate — and even the smallest roles are granted sparks of individuality. Olivia Welch, the actress playing the hero’s younger sister, has only a few scenes, but she turns a bit where she doesn’t cry into one of the most moving moments in the film.
At the very end, Raiff takes a leap into his characters’ near futures that doesn’t quite pan out: It resolves the drama but rather too neatly and with a touch of schmaltz that has been studiously avoided up until then. It doesn’t spoil matters so much as indicate that this filmmaker is still figuring out where he fits on the spectrum from SXSW to Hollywood studio. With any luck, he’ll stay on the s#!%house end of things a while longer.
Written and directed by Cooper Raiff. Starring Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker, Logan Miller. Available on demand. 102 minutes. R (language throughout, sexual content, drug/alcohol use).