Thursday 14 October 2021

Be cool: "Freshman Year"

Freshman Year's UK title is pegged to a particular nostalgic moment: the young scholar's first time away from home, when your life finally seems to be your own, and the adult pleasures of drink, drugs and fellow horndogs fall within suddenly easy reach. The film's US title may be in closer touch with collegiate reality: Shithouse. The central gag in this SXSW favourite of 2020, all but a one-man-show for writer-director-star Cooper Raiff, is that a rite-of-passage the movies have traditionally painted as just the wildest time is more often than not a squirmingly awkward mess, a maze of bad choices from which even the sharpest Fulbright contender would do well to extricate themselves. Raiff throws his emotionally dependent mother's boy Alex right in at the deep end. The homesickness and contemptuous wannabe stand-up dormmate would be plenty for any young man to have to negotiate in the first weeks of term, but then there's a drunken hook-up with the whipsmart Maggie (Dylan Gelula), which our boy comprehensively mishandles, because nobody's yet taught him how to handle such affairs. The movie gives this kid what teen movie lore would normally define as one perfect night, then spends its next hour cutting him down at the knees. Much has been made of Raiff's own youthfulness - he's currently 23, so makes one of the American cinema's more credible freshmen - but it may just be that he's just young enough to remember these humiliations more vividly than those filmmakers who make their breakthrough college comedy in their thirties or forties.

The rest of us will have to bear in mind that this is an indie production, and therefore not expect the buoying gloss of those American Pie movies that defined the college experience for a generation. (Those kids must have been so disappointed when they finally arrived on campus.) There are no comic setpieces involving eccentric or exasperated professors; instead, Raiff shepherds his characters between dorms and around the fringes of an anonymous university town, rightly sensing it's those off-campus aspects that tend to stay with you from your first year at uni, rather than anything nailed down on the curriculum itself. The scene is notionally set for a romantic self-portrait, but Raiff plays Alex as slow on the uptake - unworldly would be the kind word for the twit. Not only does he not clock that Maggie has her eye on him, he scarcely knows how to react once she leaps atop him. (The "The Time Is Now" T-shirt he reveals once Maggie asks him to remove his protective hoodie will likely endure as the most ironic item of wardrobe in any movie this year.) Gelula is a good foil in these scenes, but really comes through once Maggie - a year older, in a film that recognises how critical 12 extra months of life experience are at this stage - starts pushing back against this clueless young man's adolescent bullshit. She even gets the funniest line, telling the sappy Alex he's "like the girl from 13 Going on 30", a point of reference destined to make anyone over and above those ages feel ancient indeed.

Raiff notes and nurtures the pair's connection - even after a disastrously curtailed dryhumping session, their early interactions generate the mellow warmth of late-night conversations with a good pal - but he's also painfully aware of the hesitancy and difficulty that stems from any attempt to convert initial sparks into something more lasting besides. And that's why Freshman Year's closing moments are quietly special: in the face of the copious evidence this century has thrown up suggesting men and women really would be better off if they left one another alone, here's a filmmaker who remains guardedly optimistic. Were it not for the fact that, you know, the planet is set to become a blazing fireball inside fifty years and we keep electing the exact worst people to manage that or any other crisis, one might envy the youth of today. A film such as this, or a show like Netflix's Sex Education, unpicking the decades of misinformation movies and TV have instilled around matters of intimacy, could prove properly instructive, and spare some poor soul a grave embarrassment at a formative moment. If you were looking down the barrel of a UCAS form, and if you were able to watch Freshman Year's entire second half (through fingers, if necessary), I dare say you'd learn more about the extracurricular aspects of higher ed here than you would watching Seann William Scott chug down another man's semen from a red solo cup.

Freshman Year is now available to rent via YouTube and Prime Video.

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