“But wait,” you’ll say. “I don’t want to see another low-budget romantic comedy/drama.” And brother (or sister), I am with you. If there’s one thing we don’t need more of… well, it’s Happy Madison productions. But after that, the one thing we don’t need more of is twee tales of charmingly neurotic twentysomethings who meet cute and bond over their shared love of indie rock and reality TV, and somehow find a way to fall in love. At a glance, Breaking Upwards looks like another one of those movies. It is not one of those movies.First and foremost, it is not a boy-meets-girl story. Its pre-title sequence (which is, in its own quiet way, a real grabber) is a montage of quick, isolated moments from a relationship in progress—four years in progress, in fact. Indeed, after this long, Zoe (Zoe Lister Jones) and Daryl (Daryl Wein) are watching their romance wilt, as we can see from their bland sex, their dull routine, their wordless breakfasts reading emails on their cell phones. They realize that the bloom is off the rose, but they’re not ready to let go, either, and thus begins a long, slow, tough break-up.
It happens in stages. First they’re just “taking days off” (her mom: “Okay, I don’t know what that means”). Then they start to suspect each other of attractions to other people (of one, a tall, skinny actress, Zoe snaps, “Hey, go buy her a sandwich, I’m sure she’s starving!”). Then they decide to see other people, but first they “do a practice” conversation, to decide how much they can stand to hear. And before they realize it consciously, they’ve drifted apart.
Most romantic comedies are solely concerned with getting the couple in question together, with only superficial roadblocks and mindless miscommunications keeping them from true happiness. But what happens after “happily ever after”? It’s a question that movies seldom stop to ponder, and when we do see a break-up in film, it’s always sudden and immediate, and followed by the most shallow, uninteresting, cliché-ridden cinematic language (the ice cream binge, the wine-soaked night out, etc.). But in reality, couples break up all the time (as Dan Savage says, “Every relationship you are in will fail… until one doesn’t”), and more often than not, it happens like this—in several difficult, prickly stages.
The film is written by its stars (with Peter Duchan), who reportedly based it on their own relationship; Wein directed and edited, Lister Jones co-produced. They’re really funny together, and have a good, relaxed chemistry; their comfort as a couple is palpable on screen. Their script is bursting with memorable dialogue and funny (but real) situations; the first time they have sex after coming up with the “taking days off” arrangement, she interjects (as they’re going at each other) to ask what her Facebook should say. “Wait, when did you get on Facebook?” he asks, between frantic kisses. “MySpace is kind of dead!” she gasps back. Later, when she stands him up on one of their “on” nights, he informs her, “I’m a little irate.” Her: “Can you be a little irate?”
Alex Bergman’s cinematography is stylish, but in an approachable, low-fi way, and the picture inhabits its West Village locations with the ease of documentary. There are some problems, to be sure—charm machine Olivia Thirlby is badly underused, and when the big blow-out finally comes, it feels forced and stagy in a way that the rest of the picture doesn’t. Seeing’s how it is an autobiographical tale of two twentysomething New Yorkers, it sounds like hipster navel-gazing, and indeed, there’s a lot about it that could make it intolerable—there’s no shortage of boho intellectualism, ironic tees, and yoga classes. But it’s done with wit and verve, and a nice ear for dialogue.
Most importantly, Breaking Upwards is appealing and sympathetic. You like these people. You want them to be happy. You want them to succeed. But somehow, trickily (and without any easy villains or obvious infractions), you want them to succeed apart. To pull that off, and to do it with this much warmth and humor, is a real accomplishment.
"Breaking Upwards" opens Friday, April 2nd in limited release.