The title of Cooper Raiff's film "S#!%house" (which dispenses with the grawlix in its credits) does it few favors: Edgy enough to turn off potential viewers who would assume it to be a raunchy campus comedy in the "Animal House" mold, but even worse for the people looking for a gnarly, coed sex comedy only to find this heartfelt film about loneliness, letting go, and a sensitive freshman whose only friend is a stuffed dog he brings from home.
Our protagonist is Alex (Raiff, himself, in a pleasantly charming turn), the aforementioned sweet guy who's having a difficult transition from living in Dallas with his loving mother (Amy Landecker) and goofy teen sister (Olivia Welch), to campus life in the small dorm of an unnamed college in L.A., with Sam (Logan Miller), a sometimes antagonistic, raging party-boy roommate who gets blind drunk often enough to have a designated sick bucket in their room.
Weeks into his freshman year, Alex is still not adjusting, despite his natural affability and genial nature. Self-conscious and homesick, he doesn't seem to understand much of what anyone says to him. Instead, he nervously laughs and desperately tries to sort out sarcasm from seriousness ("Want to play a game?" a woman asks him at a loud party. "Alex, what's yours?" he answers). Despite what he thinks are his best efforts, he can't connect, and that is making him feel more and more alienated. Huddled with his stuffed pooch (who helpfully suggests he try working out, in one of the film's few flights of fancy), he starts contemplating transferring back to Texas and giving up the ghost in California.
That is until he meets his resident assistant Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a sophomore, one night at a party at the frat house of the film's ignominious title. She flirts with him before trying to hook up with someone else, as he heads out to talk with his mom on the phone, barely holding back tears to hear her voice. Later that night, he's forced out of his room into the study lounge from one of Sam's obliterated expulsions, and Maggie comes out of her room to try and seduce him, with mixed results. Still, the two continue to hang out, eventually embarking on a drunken quest across campus to bury her dead turtle, as they seem to really hit it off.
Here, comprising the rest of the first act, the film plays a bit like a Linklater selection, with the pair roaming around the area, bantering good-naturedly about everything from Alex's deceased father and the rating of animal intelligence to the existence of God. They get briefly involved with an impromptu softball game with a few other friendly students, drink more wine, and, eventually, sleep together.
Thrilled to wake up next to a woman he finds so beautiful and interesting, Alex can't understand why she so clearly wants nothing to do with him the next day, or worse, when he panics and starts compulsively liking her Instagram posts. He's hurt by her sudden coldness, but also clearly scared to go back to the loneliness he was feeling before. This all culminates badly when he goes with Sam, on better terms now, to another party later that weekend, and again runs into Maggie, who lambastes him for being a needy creep, words that stun our sensitive lad enough to want to weep again.
The thing about Alex is, he's not a bad sort of fellow, nor is he insensitive to other people's feelings. Raiff gives us enough context of his life so we understand his reluctance to turn away from his family, with whom he's so emotionally close. In a tearful dialogue with them over the phone near the end, he realizes his paralysis has stemmed in part by not wanting to let them go enough to embrace his new life. A realization he tells them over the phone, sobbing into his hoodie.
What makes the film work as well as it does, besides the writing, which is impressively sharp, is the great chemistry between Raiff and Gelula, which allows both characters to feel fully formed. Raiff especially gets at the heart of Alex's emotionality, unafraid of revealing his suffering, no matter how embarrassing it may seem (a fact that crosses directly on Maggie's philosophy of college, which "should be the most selfish time in your life"). Raiff's screenplay avoids the obvious comic pratfalls that normally comprise campus comedies, in fact, it often avoids punchlines altogether, keeping the set-up but confounding your expectation for resolution. He also sagely steers clear of obvious, cartoonish caricature in favor of smaller, vastly more realistic beats.
Alex might be unhappy, but he's not an aggravatingly inert sad sack, nor is everything on campus against him in an outlandish way: He's simply a homesick kid who is having trouble transitioning into his own person. Raiff's film allows for messiness and confusion, and until the very end -- which feels more pat than anything that comes before it -- keeps his focus on realism, which makes his protagonist's emotional journey more subtle, but also more affecting.
It is also a film that, like Alex himself, is unabashed about its open emotions. Alex is prone to emotional conviction, from his tearful exchange with his family to his confused outrage when Maggie ghosts him out of her life. He is, about his feelings, as unapologetic as Raiff is with this quiet, sensitive comedy which utterly belies its more coarse packaging.
88 Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker, Logan Miller, Olivia Welch, Abby Quinn
Director: Cooper Raiff
Rating: R, for language throughout, sexual content and drug/alcohol use
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Available for rental via streaming services.