MIFF ’21: Indie Darling Freshman Year is an Unassuming Charmer

If Hollywood is to be believed, college is one big, endless party rife with booze, drugs and sexual encounters. What’s needed is an exploration of the minutiae of tertiary education, those quieter moments that prove just as key to the experience – a void this indie feature has just filled.

Having moved from his family home in Texas, teenager Alex (Cooper Raiff) is struggling in his first year of university in California, feeling isolated physically and emotionally with only his dog plush for company. That loneliness eases upon a chance encounter with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), a fellow dweller in his dormitory, who Alex falls in love with over the course of one night, only to be rejected by her the very next morning.

Freshman Year is the directorial debut of Cooper Raiff, who also wrote the screenplay in addition to starring. His picture first garnered attention last year on the festival circuit under the title of Shithouse, earning near-unanimous praise and securing Raiff as a film-maker to watch in the months and years ahead. Those are some pretty lofty ambitions to meet, especially when one considers that Raiff’s film is quite modest in its presentation.

Raiff impresses as both an actor and director – fronting the camera, he looks assured and comfortable in the role of Alex, keeping his emotions restrained and never resorting to melodrama; likewise, his helmsmanship is solid, with the film having steady pacing, clean cinematography, and mise-en-scene that’s perfectly suited to an indie feature. What’s here certainly doesn’t break new ground, but it demonstrates that Raiff does have a firm understanding of his craft.

Where Freshman Year differs from other indie, coming-of-age or college movies is in its fly-on-the-wall depictions of dorm life. There are no rowdy frat-houses or wild riots to be witnessed in Raiff’s picture, which is more preoccupied with discussing the ennui of university, hypothesising that living on-campus is not the endless thrill that others proclaim it to be. In that sense, one could consider the film as the antithesis to the likes of Animal House and Bad Neighbours.

Freshman Year is best appreciated though as a sweet, humble tale of two lovers. Raiff and Gelula’s chemistry is palpable throughout, their endearing nature swiftly ensured by their soft, amicable conversations in the first act, and further cemented by a cathartic night-time walk. In these moments, both Alex and Maggie prove so likeable that one can forgive the awkward, cliched moments they share in the latter half of the film. Well, almost.

While far from a revelation, Freshman Year is a respectable first effort from writer-director Cooper Raiff, who does well to reflect the experiences of a disaffected student, yet also proves adept at delivering a romance that viewers yearn for. It’ll be interesting to see what he crafts next.

Freshman Year is currently streaming on MIFF Play until August the 22nd.

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