Freshman Year: Review

Freshman Year: Review

Freshman Year: Review. By Scott Gilliland.

Cooper Raiff does so well in his feature film directorial debut that everything in Freshman Year feels real; either you have encountered such moments or know people who have. Characters are full of faults, but that is all about growing up, especially in the opening months of college or University. Its relatability allows you in and excuses the odd clunky dialogue that comes its way. This is an excellent film that hits all the right notes. 

Alex (Cooper Raiff) is a college freshman struggling with the new environment that college has brought his way to the point that he talks to his only true companion, his childhood soft toy dog. That is until, at one fraternity party, he meets Maggie (Dylan Gelula), with who he has crackling chemistry as they enjoy a night together. When his dreams of finally finding a connection with another person at college come true, the harsh realities of not having everything figured out comes shuttling his way. 

Freshman Year gets so much right about that first year at University, especially for those who move far enough away from home into the great unknown. Instead of a carefree life, anxiety is the order of the day. Alex is wholly unprepared for the step up, and so not only does his mental health suffer a great deal but he struggles academically too. Refreshingly while Raiff has given us a film that includes romance and college parties, he has kept the focus of it all around the doubts and panic that resides within new students. With Freshman Year Cooper Raiff allows us to see that not every university film needs to be a Van Wilder tale, that focusing on the reality can be a whole lot more interesting.

The honesty that he provides is quite remarkable for such a small film, and shows how much confidence has within himself and his story. Every moment truly feels as if it has happened, and certainly, there are moments that I could relate to from my first year. The awkwardness and clumsiness of every interaction, the fears, finding someone who gets you and that you can pour your innermost thoughts too. It is all there, and the fact that it has been done so and succinctly needs quite an amount of applause.

As said, Alex is unprepared and worst of all for him, he is without that support structure of family, he has become helpless. So, when he finds someone like Maggie, he unknowingly latches onto the hope that she is his life jacket in the rough tides of college to keep him alive. So as this poor lost boy tries to stay afloat, he quickly (as any young person does when they think they have met a truly special person) falls for the idea of who she is and who she could be to him. Yet, life has other plans for him and instead, he must realise that life is a lot more complicated than he could have imagined.

Taking on the responsibility of the lead as well as writer, editor and director, Raiff does very well as Alex. You buy into him with ease, and when he becomes even higher strung and, yes, even a little creepy in the latter half, you understand why he has turned this way due to the foundations that have already been built earlier on. Equally, Dylan Gelula is just as compelling as Maggie, a young woman who is just as lost as Alex but is handling the situation entirely differently. When Alex tries to confront her later in the film, just as you understand why he has lost the plot, you see it from her side too.

She warned him of what she was like, and he took no heeding to her. He saw the perfect girl, and Maggie self-admittedly is far from that. Seeing her struggles allows us as an audience to feel for the duo for different reasons. We see the two grow as people as they wander around campus in long takes, and with their wonderful chemistry, you are never distracted as their flirting becomes something heavier. At times you wonder if something akin to this actually happened to Raiff and that he is using his film as a therapeutic endeavour to show himself the things he did that were wrong. However, he got to those points; it works, and you find yourself either all in on the journey the two take or infuriated by it, and that could purely be based on whether you experienced something like what is on the screen.

Raiff almost gives his film a truly great ending; however, he decided to continue for another 5 minutes with an epilogue. While that epilogue is a nice enough inclusion, it never feels all that necessary. The story was already told and done very well, so yes, it is nice to have more time with these characters, but ending Freshman Year at that earlier point would have been the stronger choice. Nevertheless, it is a minor gripe to such a strong feature and not one to derail the entire film, for this is such a solid film that you forgive it with ease.

Without a doubt, at such a young age, Raiff has made himself a talent to watch out for, the earnestness of Freshman Year carries you through, and for those who love a low-key indie film, then this one is right up the alley. A wonderful and needed portrait of what life at University is like for some people. Not everyone hits the ground running, and it takes a moment or, in Alex’s case, one person to help guide you through those rough times to see what you can get from experience. We are left with a film that strikes the right chords and at times has you wondering how Raiff stole memories from your college or university experience.

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