VOD film review: Freshman Year
James R | On 03, Oct 2021
Director: Cooper Raiff
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Amy Landecker
University. The best days of your life. But what if they’re… not? That’s the starting point for Freshman Year (titled “S#!%house” in the US), a low-budget indie comedy that attempts to dismantle the hype surrounding the college experience. It’s a noble goal, given the number of comedies out there contributing to those hyped expectations, and writer-director Cooper Raiff certainly presents a striking counterpoint to American Pie and cohorts, but Freshman Year sometimes goes so far in undermining the genre’s comedy conventions that it forgets to be entertaining itself.
Raiff takes the lead role in front of the camera as well and he mines his own experiences for some raw exchanges that ring with first-hand authenticity. He plays Alex, a first-year student who struggles to find his groove at college. He’s homesick, lonely and withdraws into his shell to cope – an early scene sees him having an imaginary conversation with his childhood toy. But when he goes to a frat party (at the titular house), he meets Maggie (Dylan Gelula). They hang out all night, and he hopes that it might be start of his first real relationship – until it becomes clear that she isn’t interested.
What ensues is a bond built on awkwardness, as he persistently messages and reaches out to her, hoping that she might be on the same wavelength. So far, so believable, but the film seems to want us to keep rooting for Alex, even as his behaviour descends into stalkerish tendencies. Raiff’s performance is committed to the role, but overestimates the amount of sympathy we can have for someone who persistently criticises other people without offering much sympathy of his own.
It’s no coincidence that the film comes into its own the more screentime is given to Maggie, and Dylan Gelula’s performance is fantastic, conveying the conflict – and conflicting perspectives – between them with nuance and humour. There’s something quietly bold about embracing the confusion on display with an honest sensitivity, while allowing the characters to be vulnerable with each other and the audience. But Alex’s behaviour frequently threatens to tip over into melodrama, while the soundtrack takes us into tweet territory a little too often for the film to keep us fully invested in his journey. Even the device of Alex talking to his childhood toy (with the replies playing out out as subtitles) only happens once and is apparently forgotten. The result is a promising debut, but one that sometimes, all too aptly, gets caught up in its own messiness.