THE BOY DOWNSTAIRS: A Charming Romantic Comedy Debut
The Boy Downstairs might be much more adept at comedy than romance, yet first-time writer-director Sophie Brooks tells her story with appealing simplicity, and Zosia Mamet's first lead performance makes you wonder why on earth it is her first.
So you’ve experienced the worst breakup of your life. You loved the person, or it was something like love anyway, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the relationship. You went back-and-forth, agonised over your choice, but couldn’t get past the basic fact that it wasn’t going to last. You needed to end it, and you did.
Now imagine that a couple of years later, after living out of the country for a while, you’re back in the city where the breakup happened. You need a new apartment, but the only ones available are pretty grim. Eventually though, the perfect place presents itself. It’s roomy, well-situated, and the building’s owner is lovely. You move in.
But one morning, as you’re getting your mail, you notice a name on another box, and your heart just stops. It’s your ex. They live downstairs. You’re neighbours.
That’s the unfortunate position in which Diana (Zosia Mamet) finds herself in The Boy Downstairs.
The Boy Downstairs
Moving back to New York after living in London and discovering that she now lives in the apartment above her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear), Diana’s feelings for him are rekindled. It’s clear that Ben still holds a torch for her, but for him, their breakup remains raw, and besides, he has a new girlfriend (Sarah Ramos).
Ben and Diana’s painful present is interspersed with scenes from their happier past; we see their first date, meeting the parents, and Diana’s doubts start to take hold.
Was their split a mistake? And if it was, is it too late to start again?
Stronger On Friendships Than Romance
Whilst the central relationship between Ben and Diana is undeniably sweet, it never catches fire in the way romances in the best romantic comedies do. Perhaps because they are both quiet personalities, or perhaps the mumblecore nature of the film precludes any great passion; either way Ben and Diana’s relationship is actually the least interesting aspect of The Boy Downstairs.
Sophie Brooks‘ film is far stronger when it comes to the female friendships. Diana shares a close bond with her best pal Gabby (Diana Irvine); when Gabby is bemoaning the latest difficulties in her relationship, Diana consoles “I’d date you if I were a boy!” Their banter is a lot of fun to watch, and really rather refreshing. It’s depressingly rare, even in the female-centric world of romantic comedies, to hear female characters speak the way that women speak in real life.
Diana also forms a close bond with Amy, (Deirdre O’Connell), the middle-aged, recently widowed landlady of her new apartment. Diana and Gabby have been best friends since long before the movie starts, but we get to witness Diana and Amy’s friendship from the beginning, and it’s just lovely; Amy talks about the need to surround herself with young people since the death of her husband, and Diana, whose own mother is never mentioned, benefits greatly from the advice of an older woman. Their shared sense of humour, and the way they support each other throughout the movie, is another one of The Boy Downstairs‘ great joys.
Two Promising Debuts
Okay, so The Boy Downstairs is not Zosia Mamet‘s first film. Far from it. Aside from an array of stage and TV roles (most notably as Shoshanna in Girls), she’s made appearances in a number of movies like Greenberg, The Kids Are Alright, and Wiener-Dog.
She’s never been the lead before, however, and on the strength of her performance in The Boy Downstairs, that’s a real shame. Mamet is excellent in the film; she’s engaging, warm, and tremendously funny. There are emotional moments where she excels, but it’s her wit, and perfect comedic timing that really stand out. In a romantic comedy like this, where the romance is a little bit tepid, it’s vital to have a comedically gifted actress like Mamet in the leading role. The passion may be lacking between Ben and Diana, but their repartee, at least, is on fire.
The Boy Downstairs‘ other movie debut, the actual debut, is writer-director Sophie Brooks. With only two prior IMDB credits to her name, both shorts, Brooks‘ first feature film is impressive on multiple fronts. Her direction is unshowy. Her decision to differentiate the film’s two time periods by having Ben wear glasses in the present and contacts in the past means that we are never confused about where we are in the relationship, and it avoids the more hamfisted methods often used to surmount the same problem, like changing the colour grading, or using on-screen titles. Simplicity is key here, and The Boy Downstairs is all the better for it.
It’s Brooks‘ writing, though, that really shines. Aside from having an astute ear for the rhythms of women’s conversations, and top comedic chops, she has a real sense of her characters and their lives and their worries. Cinema hasn’t lacked for explorations of what it’s like to be a millennial in recent years, but it’s rare to find an exchange as succinct and completely on point as this one:
Diana: I don’t know what I’m doing.
Amy: What do you want to be doing?
Diana: I don’t know!
Brooks likes her characters, and she feels for them, and that translates to us. Though their problems may be small, and in the grand scheme of things unimportant, we want the best for them. To create such audience empathy, especially in a debut feature, is no mean feat.
The Boy Downstairs is an affable and consistently funny portrait of a woman who realises she has just been gifted the chance to fix the biggest mistake of her life. Though the film is small in scope, and much more adept at comedy than romance, first-time writer-director Sophie Brooks tells her story with appealing simplicity, and Zosia Mamet’s first lead performance makes you wonder why on earth it is her first. Expect big things from both women in the near future.
Have you seen The Boy Downstairs? What did you think?
The Boy Downstairs is released in the US on February 16th. For further release information, click here.
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