When Cooper Raiff’s debut feature-length film, Shithouse, won the Jury Prize at the pandemic-truncated SXSW festival in March 2020, it represented the kind of meteoric rise to stardom that young filmmakers dream of.
Two years earlier, Raiff was a normal college student who spent his spring break making a short film with two of his friends. After he uploaded it to YouTube, he tweeted it to actor/filmmaker Jay Duplass. Duplass watched it and liked it enough to encourage Raiff to make it into a feature film. Raiff dropped out of school, and filmed Shithouse on a shoestring budget, shooting it without permits on his college campus. He wrote, directed, edited, and starred in the film. He submitted it to SXSW where it went on to a distribution bidding war won by IFC. Raiff had just turned 23.
I absolutely love Raiff’s voice and filmmaking instincts. Shithouse is one of my favorites of the decade so far. Sophomore effort Cha Cha Real Smooth, while more conventional and formulaic, has its charms, too. I will be following his career with great interest and just a little bit of envy.
So I decided to go back to the project that started it all: Madeline & Cooper, the 55-minute student film made in 5 days. It’s available as a bonus feature on the Shithouse DVD; industrious Googlers might have some luck, too.
Credit to Jay Duplass: He somehow saw the potential for this story to be something great despite some extremely rough edges. This is a very unpolished gem. Then again, Duplass and his brother traffic in mumblecore, a cinematic convention that prides itself on its minimal production values. If you have a camera and a voice, you can make a movie.
With that in mind, there is certainly some promise in Madeline & Cooper. It’s a sad-sack college riff on Before Sunrise (in fact, protagonist Cooper, played by Raiff, watches Before Sunrise in an early scene). Boy and girl meet, walk around all night chatting, then part. Madeline & Cooper flips the stereotypical gender dynamics, though; the man is the reserved one swept into the connection, while the woman is horny and assertive. On paper, it has shades of Garden State where the woman’s narrative purpose is to open up the man’s perspective; yet Raiff manages to give Madeline (played by his college friend, Madeline Hill) sufficient interiority and agency that she feels as much a real person as Cooper.
I’m a sucker for lo-fi, naturalistic dramedies, but this is a bit minimal even for me. The production values are obviously that of a student film: a rented camera and some mics, little thought for the film’s look or texture. The story feels shabby, too, as if it’s the germ of an idea rather than the full idea itself. Or maybe I’m just projecting: The story is a rough draft for the first half of Shithouse but misses the second half, the brutal romantic hangover, which is the segment that makes Shithouse something special.
If you’ve seen Shithouse, you’ll recognize the large majority of the dialogue and scenes, with only a few bits here or there changed. Most of it is pulled off much better in Shithouse, but there is one specific wrinkle I like more than the original: the larger emphasis on Madeline’s (in Shithouse, Maggie’s) pet turtle as a psychological factor for her pensiveness.
Ultimately, Madeline & Cooper is a curiosity for fans of Raiff and Shithouse and not worth watching otherwise (unless, I suppose, you are a fanatic of post-mumblecore films). But it has just enough charm and originality to stay watchable and intriguing.