The experience of the college freshman isn’t an unusual subject for the cinematic experience. We’ve seen this subject matter tackled in an abundance of crass comedies over the years. But with auteur Cooper Raiff’s Freshman Year, the experience is something refreshingly meaningful. In fact, it isn’t just meaningful, it’s disarming and at times both heartbreaking and hopeful.
Raiff not only stars as the gentle and child-like Alex, he also writes, directs, produces and edits Freshman Year. His familiarity with the characters and the story provides an exceptional insight which translates effortlessly to the screen. The viewing experience of Freshman Year feels like a glimpse into the past for those who can recall their first year of college. But perhaps more importantly it’s also a deep exploration of the need for adolescent human connection.
Alex is a first-year student originally from Texas but is now studying in L.A. He appears painfully shy and at the outset his only emotional connection is with a stuffed toy. Desperately missing his mother (Amy Landecker) and sister (Olivia Welch), he struggles to connect with his roommate Sam (Logan Miller). His calls home often result in emotional outbursts through which Raiff nobly communicates the heartbreak of feeling alone and trapped. It’s a very heart-on-the-sleeve performance which feels like the antithesis of the male characters in any other college comedy. His boyish good looks make Alex an awkwardly-charismatic lead, it’s impossible not to fall instantly in to his corner.
Resolving to expose himself to college life, Alex meets and forms a connection with Maggie (Dylan Gelula), his dorm’s R.A. The two spend an entire night talking, reminiscing about her recently-deceased turtle, Peter, and attempting to have bad sex. It’s the typical freshman college experience of awkward, pretentious and yet bumbling conversation underpinned by the baser urge to form romantic relationships. But the next morning, Maggie is cold towards him. She distances herself from Alex leaving him with a moral dilemma. Was this a hook up? Or was this something more meaningful.
Gelula has the meatier role of the two leads. During their first meeting there is an infections warmth to Maggie’s character. Gelula exudes confidence in the role. She is everything Alex hopes his freshman year had been. But waking up the following morning, the audience is introduced to a sharper side of her personality. In the cold light of the morning after, Gelula’s performance is the perfect kick in the teeth to push Alex’s journey forwards.
Freshman Year quickly becomes a two-handler, exposing the point of view from both Alex and Maggie. When the two meet again the following night their ideals clash in a ball of angsty adolescent hormones. Was Alex simply searching for more meaning in their encounter? Or is Maggie unwilling to form meaningful connections? This duality allows Freshman Year the opportunity to explore both Maggie’s exasperation and Alex’s innocence in equal measure. It’s during these moments of exploration when Freshman Year is its most alluring and authentic. Raiff’s dialogue is credible and imaginative. It echoes the spontaneity of college life but is never ridiculous or too self-absorbed like other college, coming-of-age films.
Director of photography Rachel Klein enhances the film with multiple long, lingering shots. Klein beautifully captures longing glances between characters as well as capturing their fraught body language. Though its far from documentative, Raiff goes to painstaking lengths to encapsulate the experiences of its characters.
Ultimately, Freshman Year hinges on the likability of its leads. Handing the film to less engaging actors could have resulted in a drastically different movie. But arguably with Raiff steering the semi-autobiographical ship with such meticulousness, there was little chance Freshman Year would be anything short of impressive.
Freshman Year is available now on digital platforms in the UK.