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Sophie Brooks’s lo-fi comedy The Boy Downstairs is idealistic, romantic and anticlimactic. There is a slightness to this that is both virtue and vice: it wears its generic form and antecedents lightly, unconcerned with looking derivative or cheesy. We even get a grievingly bittersweet end-of-relationship montage of happiest moments, in the manner of Annie Hall, used in numberless romcoms since then and indeed in reality TV shows for the outgoing contestant. It also features a writer who works on a MacBook with an air of mild Carrie Bradshaw-type vexation, actually closing up the laptop when she needs to think about what she has just written.
This is a snack of a movie, rather than a meal, or maybe a casual brunch, which the characters are incidentally shown sitting down to during one scene where a certain conversation is to prove the beginning of the end for their love. There is a lot of dialogue – and, relaxingly, no great imperative that everything in it has to be zingingly funny – and The Boy Downstairs is a reminder that, against all the odds, just talking can be intensely cinematic. But sometimes the jokes are thrown away, rather than throwaway.
Zosia Mamet (from HBO’s Girls) is the star, playing Diana, a would-be writer who has just returned to New York from a postgrad year in London with some short stories and the first draft of a novel under her belt. This break has been really important to her, for a number of reasons. She has attached great significance to it as a learning experience but also it has been the reason or alibi for breaking up with her boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear). She told him that a long-distance relationship wouldn’t work and to continue it on that basis would imply a commitment and seriousness she wasn’t happy with. So it is with excruciating embarrassment that she realises that Ben now occupies the apartment below the one she just moved into. Are they like Noël Coward’s divorced lovers in Private Lives – the Elyot and Amanda Chase of the 21st-century, avocado-toast generation?
Poor Diana. She had been pretty happy until that moment, ready for life’s challenges and the looming quarterlife crisis. But the very fact that Ben was in this apartment building first makes her look like a loser, and there seems to be no way she can efface the impression that she is a “crazy ex-girlfriend”. It is a what-are-the-chances scenario that belongs to a social-media age, an inadvertent Facebook-stalking situation brought to horrible life. But, in common with most modern movies and dramas, people aren’t shown on their smartphones anywhere near as much as they actually would be in real life.
Inevitably, this mortifying mess is interspersed with flashbacks showing the beginning, middle and end of their lost affair, including meetings with their respective parents. Diana’s dad is a formidable, flinty-eyed guy who has to be greeted with a firm handshake; Ben’s mum and dad are warm and hospitable and heartwarmingly affectionate with each other. Then as now, Diana’s best friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) is someone whose weakness for cruel men is a terrible warning.
First-time writer-director Brooks interestingly shows that the lives of Ben and Diana are not wildly different now. At first there are intertitles saying “Four years earlier”, but from then on the switches back and forth happen unheralded and it isn’t immediately obvious what’s a flashback and what isn’t. The lives, the clothes, the hairstyles are the same. There is the same unease, the same uncomfortable jokes.
Mamet gives a very likable and generous performance, and her jolie-laide presence counteracts what could have been, and in fact sometimes is, a rather self-pitying character. The problem is that she outclasses Shear, who is a bit of a bore compared with Diana. There isn’t much there for us to engage with, although it is his very reticence, evidence of an easygoing good nature, that supposedly makes him good partner or husband material.
And where are we going with all this? Nowhere very sensational, though I was sort of hoping that Diana would stick up for herself just a little more by the end. She says to Gabby: “I’d date you if I was a boy!” This film’s getting up the courage to ask you out.
Source: The Guardian
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