I’m having trouble calling “Breaking Upwards” a “romantic comedy” despite the fact that it’s about a relationship and it’s certifiably quite funny. Part of my hesitation may be that it’s often slim-pickings when looking for good films in the genre, especially if one is, like me, unabashedly repulsed by star-powered glam productions. You know, the kind with the fuzzy-wuzzy lines, coincidence-heavy, ultimately predictable plots and characters who seem to have no real responsibilities besides wooing each other with exaggerated winks and wit. Come to think of it, though, maybe the courtship of Darryl (Darryl Wein) and Zoe (Zoe Lister-Jones) could also have slotted into such a formula, or at least its indie-version, perfect for us 20-something date-ables.
But what saves this couple, two Tisch grads who made the film and played themselves in it, from falling into all the boy/girl/love clichés is that their movie covers a relationship stage too rarely granted screen time. Our two lovers are well past the sparkly-eyed honeymoon phase but have not yet ventured into marital (read: deeply cynical) territory. But, as you may know (hypocrite reader!) love can’t always conquer boredom, that monster to New York youth. So, thinking themselves creative, progressive people, Zoe, an actress, and Daryl, a journalist/writer, decide to give each other space. “Days-off,” as they call their plan, starts as a way of pushing each other, more via pride than support, to be proactive and independent, try new things and make keep themselves happy sans the other on alternating days of the week. But trying new things quickly morphs into trying new people, and their brilliant brain-child of a scheduling scheme soon devolves into a sham open-relationship — increasingly they’re negotiating a painful break-up rather than trying to pull things together.
And although things are falling apart, it’s one of the best movies to watch with your sig-other, if only for all the times you’ll wince in recognition. Many moments, funny or not, feel close to home for anyone navigating that well-worn battlefield. Needy phone calls mixed with proud hang-ups, things left unsaid, alternating yell-fests of hurtful TMI, sex for the sake of it and even pet regret. If that sounds like too much of a downer, the excellent supporting cast keeps you laughing through the angst. Zoe’s mother is the most feisty artist-spinster around, a sure foil to her daughter’s codependent blues, if not to Darryl’s bickering-but-in-it-for-the-long-haul parents. The two mothers, in particular, do a fine job of dancing around notions of parental archetypes, a result of their excellent improv talent and a sturdy script. Forgiving the one Facebook/MySpace joke and ill-conceived spy session, the writing is as good as you’ll find in anything trying to pass more for romantic comedy than drama.
Ultimately then, the heavy moments and the humor add up to a sincerity I’ve rarely seen on screen — this couple is putting all their efforts in their love life, rather than their acting — and the result is a convincing, honest grittiness that’s as witty as it is sweet. When Zoe cries, I kind of know where she’s at. And when Darryl’s a douchebag, I’ve seen it coming. The only elements not as painfully fleshed-out, and maybe all the better for it, are their other options: Zoe’s actor colleague is a dull jerk while Darryl’s new girlfriends seem nothing but smiles. And frankly, I’m fine with that — if there’s anyone you don’t want to humanize, it’s your competition. Because, weirdly enough, you’ll find yourself on both sides — empathies both well-constructed and well-deserved.
Before closing, I admit I feel almost obliged to rave about what an independent gem this is — on how little money it was made, the creative use of cabs and carpets, favors from friends and digital shooting and in-your-living-room editing. It is carefully filmed and avoids the first-feature sloppiness of many other such projects, so once beyond that, what does the budget matter? Since when has love depended on money anyway?