Our incurably homesick, fish-out-of-water nice guy is so transparently decent that he misses his mother and sister—both of whom he left behind in Texas—over genuine tears, and often cuddles up with his stuffed toy in his lifeless dorm room, imagining full-fledged conversations with it. “College sucks but you’re not even trying,” the plush dog tells him through subtitles. “Start packing,” it advises him next, when Alex flirts with the idea of transferring to a Texan university, feeling overwhelmed by his irresponsible, hard-drinking but ultimately well-meaning roommate-from-hell Sam (Logan Miller).
Alex is lovably played by the young and talented Raiff himself—given the debuting filmmaker also wrote, edited and produced “Shithouse” with auteur-like ownership, it’s not unreasonable to assume that this sweet little film (which perhaps deserves a more savory title) is not entirely fictional. Still, “Shithouse” is not only about Alex. Mostly a two-hander, the film also centers Maggie (Dylan Gelula, effortlessly alternating between soft and prickly edges), the aforementioned potential girlfriend. Alex’s resident assistant, Maggie spends a delightful night with Alex that starts at a boozy dorm party located at what the cool kids call Shithouse, continues with an awkward bed rendezvous and grows into something straight out of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” She confides in him about her recently deceased pet turtle (which we get to meet earlier), family troubles and secrets about making it in college. To Maggie, the key to intelligence is adapting. To Alex, who can’t be further from that territory, intelligence is more about keeping it real, about not playing games with people.
They walk and talk all night, with Maggie providing Alex a stealthy outlook to college life, and Alex assisting her on simpler quests, like giving her poor turtle dumped in a shoebox somewhere a proper burial. Things turn awkward the next morning, growing even sourer through another nighttime party and beyond, with Maggie practicing her right to move on, and Alex, unsure about where the hell he went wrong. Is the clearly agitated Maggie playing games and being mean for no reason? Or is Alex expecting too much too soon?