With a title like Freshman Year, known originally as Shithouse, you’d be forgiven for thinking Cooper Raiff‘s debut is more akin with the juvenile comedies so many cinematic colleges have been the setting for. Nothing could be further from the reality though, with Raiff injecting a sweetness and raw emotion into his script as it tracks a condensed period of time for his socially awkward Alex and a key relationship that helps bring him out of his anti-social funk.
Schooling in California, but still homesick for his close-knit family in Texas, the only functional relationship Alex seems to have is with his stuffed animal (who converses with him via subtitles – it’s not as bizarre as it sounds). His roommate (Logan Miller) is an alcoholic, and wildly unfunny wannabe stand-up comedian, but they manage to at least connect on a superficial level, earning invites to the same parties.
At a fraternity dubbed “Shithouse” (hence the original title) Alex meets the borderline cynical, more straight-talking Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and, despite their emotional differences, they hit it off. Adopting a Before Sunrise-type mentality, Raiff frames a large section of the film around Alex and Maggie’s evening of subtle investigative conversation; they learn of each other’s family lives, they’re invited to a late-night softball game, and, surprisingly tenderly, hold a funeral service for Maggie’s dead turtle; again, not as bizarre as it sounds.
The night ends well, but the following morning brings a coldness to Maggie’s treatment of Alex, and his subsequent probing into why only further keeps her at a distance. Whilst it would be easy for either character to be shaded in a more villainous fashion to suit the traditional narrative – in this case we’d perhaps expect Maggie to be villainised for her reaction to Alex’s inherent sweetness – Raiff is intelligent enough to respect both characters and their trajectory; sure, Alex is sweet but it feels like he’s never emotionally matured outside of his home, and Maggie, cold as she appears, is well within her right to change her own gears when it suits her.
Audiences hoping for something “crowd-pleasing” in the mainstream comedy sense are best left to seek their simple pleasures elsewhere as Freshman Year indulges in the everyday mentality. Raiff proves himself as not only an accustomed on-screen presence but a naturalistic writer and director with an organic eye for the habitual space, whilst Gelula, already having shown her impassive comedic skills in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, bounces off him effortlessly with a believable awkwardness, resulting in a not-always predictable outing that enjoys removing the sugar coating so many of these genre efforts adhere to.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Freshman Year is screening as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, which is being presented both physically and virtually between August 5th and 22nd, 2021. For more information head to the official MIFF page.