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'S***house': A Sweet And Happy Collegiate Rom-Com With A Provocative Name

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The film that won the top prize at this year's South by Southwest Film Festival is, by all accounts, a sweet and sunny college romance. What is it called? Well, we can't tell you exactly. Critic Bob Mondello explains.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We'll get to the title in a sec. But first, let me introduce Alex. He's a college freshman - pleasant, kind of dweeby Texas kid living a thousand miles away from his family for the first time and, truth be told, as this Friday afternoon turns to evening, feeling lonely. His hard-drinking roommate and he have nothing in common. But with a long weekend staring him in the face, Alex reaches out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

COOPER RAIFF: (As Alex) Do you know if there are any parties tonight?

MONDELLO: And here's where we hear the title, taken from a collegiate party spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, yeah. [Expletive] house is having a party.

RAIFF: (As Alex) Like, the house is called [expletive] house?

MONDELLO: See why we can't say it?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It's kind of far, but my buddy Sam (ph) said it's going to be fire.

RAIFF: (As Alex) It's fire.

MONDELLO: Being at a party when he doesn't know anyone does little to make Alex feel less lonely. I mean, there's activity - a coed who pulls him into a clinch, for instance, and bites his lip.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

RAIFF: (As Alex) Ouch.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You're trouble, aren't you?

RAIFF: (As Alex) I'm trouble?

MONDELLO: But it's still pretty early in the evening when Maggie, who's also left the party, discovers him back in the dorm's lounge, staring soulfully at the ceiling. She takes pity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

DYLAN GELULA: (As Maggie) Do you want to, like, go hang out?

RAIFF: (As Alex) Yeah. Yeah, I'd love to. What do you want to do? Why - were we...

GELULA: (As Maggie) I was thinking we could go to the Grand Canyon.

MONDELLO: That is not what she was thinking - not at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

RAIFF: (As Alex) Do you have a car?

GELULA: (As Maggie) I'm talking about, like, going to my room and, like, hanging out there instead of here.

RAIFF: (As Alex) Oh, like to kiss and have sex? Is that what you're asking?

GELULA: (As Maggie) I guess so.

RAIFF: (As Alex) Do you even know my name?

MONDELLO: She does not, but their evening together has begun, an evening that first-time writer-director Cooper Raiff, who also plays Alex, has shaped as a sort of collegiate version of the walk-and-talk romances director Richard Linklater made about an intellectual couple communing in Paris before sunrise or sunset or whatever. Alex and Maggie are less fully formed at 19, so their talk is less heady. But Raiff keeps the chatter philosophical.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

GELULA: (As Maggie) What I'm saying is, like, college is and, like, it should be the most selfish time of your life. Like, the agenda here is not to learn how to be a great friend.

RAIFF: (As Alex) OK. What is the agenda - figure out who you are?

GELULA: (As Maggie) Actually, it is.

RAIFF: (As Alex) I want other people to help me in that. Like, I want other people to be a part of my identity.

GELULA: (As Maggie) I think it's about, like, figuring out who you are separate from other people and, like, taking care of yourself.

RAIFF: (As Alex) Yeah, I just don't like college.

MONDELLO: Does Alex sound vulnerable and Maggie grounded? Well, they're both still feeling their way in a slice of campus life that'll seem familiar to anyone who spent freshman year either homesick or with emotional armor deployed. Maggie's got hers fully up the next morning, and Alex kind of doesn't know what hit him when she walks by as his roommate is examining his cellphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHITHOUSE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, my God. You sent her so many messages.

RAIFF: (As Alex) Hey. What's going on?

GELULA: (As Maggie) Hey. It's you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you sure that that was the girl?

RAIFF: (As Alex) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Just seems like she didn't know that you existed.

MONDELLO: Raiff wears his heart so visibly on his sleeve during all this that you have to imagine there's a lot of him in the leading man. Dylan Gelula's Maggie is sensitive in a way that's harder to read, but that's by design. Everything is by design, actually, in a filmmaking debut so accomplished and guileless and altogether winning that it's frustrating that it's saddled with a title suggesting none of those qualities. I mean, so is "Schitt's Creek," I suppose, but I can say that 'cause you know how that one's spelled. Let's just say that the house that brought these tremendously appealing kids together isn't spelled that way.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE")

WAXAHATCHEE: (Singing) We, we never leave the beach. We'll grow numb to the mystique. And the world... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.