Is there a film genre more tiresome than indie dramedies about artsy twentysomethings and their solipsistic struggles for romance?
Is there a film genre more tiresome than indie dramedies about artsy twentysomethings and their solipsistic struggles for romance? It’s such a well-worn form factor for a low-budget movie exercise that it’s damn near impossible to go into one with much expectation. The Boy Downstairs, the screenwriting and directorial debut of newcomer Sophie Brooks, ticks off all the usual boxes, but it offers enough moments of spontaneity to stay just above run-of-the-mill.
At its worst, The Boy Downstairs feels less like a movie and more a reliable framework designed to showcase Zosia Mamet as a leading lady. She stars as Diana, an aspiring novelist who returns to New York after three years abroad, only to discover that her new apartment is directly upstairs from the boyfriend she broke up with right before leaving the states. That ex-beau Ben, played by Mistress America’s Matthew Shear, is now dating the realtor who sold Diana on the apartment in the first place, and he’s actively dodging Diana’s awkward attempts to rekindle a friendship.
It’s a premise that would work well for an ongoing television series, where the central conflict of Diana and her ex being neighbors could be revisited in between other narrative threads, a persistent will-they-or-won’t-they while serialized storytelling makes breathing room for long-form characterization and broader observations about twentysomething life. But within a lean indie film, this development is truncated and intercut with flashbacks to Diana and Ben’s relationship before she moved across the pond. The writing is easygoing and charming enough, but the failed romance angle feels too inert to focus an entire film.
The key conflict is that Diana wanted to feel free to focus on her own growth and her work as a writer while Ben was head over heels and assumed they’d be together forever. Now that she’s back, she doesn’t understand why he doesn’t want to be friends, but it’s also clear that her interest in Ben’s new life is more than platonic. It’s just a little too boring to truly care about. Mamet and Shear have great chemistry and their interactions are believable, but there’s something pedestrian about the dramatic question of how they’ll end up. A romantic comedy or drama should have you gagging to know whether there’ll be a happily-ever-after, not casually yawning at the abstract idea of the leads’ respective futures.
Where the film succeeds most is in Diana’s relationships with her supporting cast. Her best friend, Gabby (Diana Irvine), is a great foil, a little oblivious and codependent where Diana is ruthlessly self-aware and reticent to place her happiness in anyone else’s hands. There’s also Diana’s landlord, Amy, an aging stage actress played by Deirdre O’Connell. Amy represents a potential future for Diana, an artist who took a ton of risks reminding her that taking a chance at love won’t kill her potential for self-expression. The moments shared between these women feel so natural and engaging that every time the film cuts back to the A-plot, it’s hard to muster up the same enthusiasm.
A hilarious moment early on, when a guy Gabby is seeing interrupts their make-out session to ask if she likes Radiohead, is so raw and unexpected that it implies a whole host of similarly searing snapshots of twentysomething life. But there’s precious little room for such comedy in this otherwise glacially paced navel-gazer about nostalgia and a distinctly millennial fear about the impermanence of the present, let alone the false promise of the future.
It’s a shame, too, because director Brooks has a knack for letting a scene play out visually, with a wide open frame and intimate medium shots, never getting too cutty or clumsily handheld. The look of the film is such a refreshing change of pace, that the worst tendencies of the script are highlighted even more.
The Boy Downstairs shows off its two romantic leads well, as both Mamet and Shear deserve more meaty roles like the ones they inhabit here. Perhaps those future roles will be in films where they each get more room to breathe, absent a doomed romance singularly designed to suck the air out of every single scene.