“Freshman Year articulates enough specifics to be unique but not so many as to lose sight of the universality at its core.”
Alex (Cooper Raiff) is struggling. He’s studying at a Los Angeles college, in his second semester, and has yet to make any friends or go to any parties. His responses to an unexpected quiz range from “I don’t know” to “Let’s get some multiple choice up in here.” Phone calls with his mother and sister back in Dallas routinely leave him on the verge of tears. Outside of them, the only regular interactions he has are with the server in the student accommodation food hall; his binge-drinking, weed-vaping, well-meaning roommate-from-hell, Sam (Logan Miller, a scene-stealer); and his plush toy who communicates with him via subtitles (“You tried, let’s go home,” it suggests after a pitiful attempt at socialising).
Displaying an auteurist sensibility, Raiff also wrote, directed, and edited Freshman Year (previously titled Shithouse). He wears his influences – Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Andrew Bujalski’s mumblecore masterpieces – on his sleeve but the proceedings never tip over into derision. This is mostly because his voice as a filmmaker is pronounced, remarkably so in a debut feature, and his portrait of campus life draws from personal experiences. Fittingly, the film is full of wonderful little details that make the setting feel tangible but never bogged down in minutia. It articulates enough specifics to be unique but not so many as to lose sight of the universality at its core. After all, who among us hasn’t felt as if everyone else was sent a secret email containing instructions on how to succeed in the real world and we weren’t cc’ed?
The film is a two-hander, also centring on Maggie (Dylan Gelula, who is electric). She is Alex’s resident assistant, but he’s such a recluse that he hasn’t appeared on her radar until now. Still, it’s poor form for an RA to not know their resident’s name and Alex calls her out on it. He’s genuinely offended that she hasn’t tried, but she plays it off and asks if he wants to hook up with her. It’s a small moment, but it sets up the push-and-pull of their romantic dynamic: he feels deeply, expecting everyone to match him, while she tries not to feel too much, deflecting intimacy.
Their relationship is where the film finds balance between personal and universal emotions. Following the hookup, Alex and Maggie walk around campus, bantering over a bottle of wine; their chemistry is palpable. But the morning after, feelings between them begin to curdle. Alex is lonely and wants a relationship, so he feels that Maggie is being mean by ignoring the good thing they have going. Maggie replies that she doesn’t owe Alex anything, that she just wants to move on and continue having no-strings-attached hookups.
It’s a familiar dilemma to campus life and Raiff examines it thoughtfully; Alex and Maggie are both right and wrong, and the film balances their viewpoints without erring to one side à la Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. However, slight issues arise when Raiff tries to resolve their rift. Raiff does such a good job establishing the emotional reality of their relationship that when anything rings false, it’s practically deafening. Having been an RA with a fair share of hookups with residents that never ended well, the easiness with which the film resolves the romantic conflict – while lovely – had me rolling my eyes.
But as complaints go, “too optimistic” is far from damning. That the filmstruggles to reconcile the perfect rom-com ending with the plot only speaks to just how authentic it is up until that point. A collegiate tone seeps from every pore, from the film’s nano-budget to its freewheeling scrappiness; it’s messy, yes, but mess is the appeal. Like Alex, Freshman Year can’t quite make all the pieces fit together – but neither can any of us at that age. We grow, we change, we one-up ourselves; and if he can one-up this, Raiff’s next film promises to be extraordinary.
Header image courtesy of IFC Films
Directed By: Cooper Raiff
Produced By: CMR Productions / Divi Crockett Digital
Cast: Cooper Raiff, Dylan Gelula, Logan Miller
Release Date: October 1, 2021
Available On: Streaming