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Review: Ready or not, ‘S—house’ reminds you how hard it is to be 19

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in the movie "S—house."
(IFC Films)

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At a time when many young adults are trapped living at home with their parents — as lovely as that may be — a movie about the opposite, that moment when you’ve left the nest but aren’t sure you can fly, seems particularly poignant.

The low-budget indie “S—house,” writer-director-star Cooper Raiff’s feature debut that took the top prize at this year’s virtual SXSW film festival, thoroughly mines that niche. The film might best be classified as “crumblecore,” for crumbling is exactly what its beleaguered protagonist Alex is on the verge of doing.

Six months into his freshman year of college in L.A. and 1,400 miles from home, 19-year-old Alex is totally adrift and miserable. He’s made zero friends, has a stuffed animal who speaks to him in subtitles (at least for a little while) and a loathsome roommate. His digital umbilical cord to his mom and younger sister in Dallas is rapidly fraying.

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Pining for a college experience that has thus far eluded him and desperate to stave off the loneliness and acute sense of failure that plague him, Alex decides to step out of his comfort zone and attend a frat party at the establishment that gives the movie its unprintable title.

Over the course of 36 — sometimes excruciating — hours, Alex leads us on an excursion featuring too much drinking, awkward sexual encounters, late-night undergraduate discourse and stinging reproach among young people psychologically ill-equipped to handle the razor-sharp tools of independence.

The emotionally agile Raiff, who resembles a young, less cocky Chris Eigeman, inhabits the role of Alex as comfortably as his character does an oft-present hoodie. There’s a high level of discomfort as we watch these young folks fumble and lash out, but it’s more than tolerable as the filmmaker buttresses his own performance with a pair of gutsy, gifted scene partners.

As Sam, Alex’s dyspeptic roommate, Logan Miller is unrepentantly vulgar and obnoxious. When Alex says they hate each other, you absolutely understand why.

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Dylan Gelula (“Support the Girls,” “Her Smell”) plays Maggie, a sophomore RA whom Alex quickly becomes infatuated with. He’s largely inept at the art of small talk and foreplay, she’s detached and transactional — Gelula makes Maggie simultaneously steely and vulnerable, alluring yet impossible to read. Somehow, there’s a spark between the two (or is it completely one-sided?), and like Alex, you’re never quite sure where that connection is headed.

For much of the movie, you’re not even sure if you like any of these characters enough to care but they grow on you. They might be self-absorbed, rude to one another and sometimes frustratingly inarticulate, but isn’t that true of many 19-year-olds?

The real achievement for Raiff, who attended Occidental and launched the film by first making a short, posting it to YouTube and tweeting at Jay Duplass, is being able to communicate how hard it is to communicate at that age. Though the film’s casual structure lulls you into thinking not much is going on, the gently shifting power dynamics between the characters, and a reversal of the traditional gender roles sets up an unexpectedly moving resolution.

There’s certainly some unexamined privilege here, but what’s striking about Raiff’s film to someone long past young adulthood is how little has changed. Smartphones and social media may have fast-tracked certain elements and this generation is more socially fluid in just about everything, but the basic interactions remain the same. Even decades later, one can clearly remember the highs and lows, the small joys and the big heartaches, and “S—house” brings them home — whether you like it or not.

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‘S—house’

Rated: R, for language throughout, sexual content and drug/alcohol use

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Available Oct. 16 on VOD; also in limited release where theaters are open outside California.


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