A charming, low-budget comedy made by filmmaking team and real-life couple Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones, Breaking Upwards is a comfy, up-tempo view of the New York indie-verse that has strong regional flourish, feeling less like a glamour shot of NY and more like a view of the city that never sleeps from a well worn studio with a big bed. The way the film handles relationships has a similarly light but lived in air to it as well. Certainly, references to great New York films abound (a charming moment of audio corruption is subtitled, adding a gorgeous modernist spin on Woody Allen’s subtitled sequence on the roof in Annie Hall) but, as a result, the picture isn’t boasting anything earth-shatteringly new. What Breaking Upwards does, which is handled in a particularly sensitive and thorough way, is look at boredom in young love as the peril it is, and the handling and acting is so thoroughly realized you can’t help but get invested. Numbers may start small but word of mouth will help this highly accessible and warm romance-in-reverse become a strong contender in the IFC lineup.
Daryl (Wein) and Zoe (Lister Jones), both going by their real names, have been together for four years. Their ages are unclear. She’s an actress and he’s a budding journalist. They appear to live well: restaurants, a spacious apartment and a good social environment surround them. But they’re bored. Troupers that they are, they handle their boredom by making a chart of goals. The first thing on the list is “proactive,” which says something about their orientation and the idea they’re forestalling the end—by breaking up. These guys aren’t the jaded, wayward souls of Joe Swanberg’s mumble-town or the passive backstabbers of Andrew Bujalski’s demi-monde. These characters are eager, never idle and always making something of themselves. Zoe is constantly working or auditioning; mention is regularly made of Daryl’s recent publications. But their relationship, pre-break-up, was in overt doldrum and it looks like the best thing they ever did for each other was split. At first the plan was to take days off, but this devolved into seeing other people. The issue of codependence arose naturally, particularly in discussions between Zoe and her mother (Andrea Martin). Meanwhile, the threat of a technically successful marriage bears down on Daryl as he watches his mother and father (Julie White and Peter Friedman) bicker unpleasantly and disobey each other’s requests. So while the break-up is, at first, this team venture the kids are both excited about, it helps build this giant chasm between them and in that chasm they fit every insecurity they ever had about each other and themselves. You can see yourself in their places without even making a conscious effort to.
It would be really easy to reduce this by calling it a charming character study because the more didactic parts of the film focus on the couple’s struggles and failures, so you don’t walk away saying “oh, so that’s how a couple can rekindle their spark!” These characters, functioning from the only relationship experiences they know (hooking up, getting together, breaking up), are at a loss for tools and it’s not hard to see why—they have to figure this out as they go along and their role models are hard to get a bead on. Even the art that surrounds them offers them no grounds upon which to process their situation. An art show the couple attends is derailed by a friend (Sam Rosen) who acts like a lewd cretin and distracts them from the displays, meanwhile the play Zoe stars in is nothing but an opportunity to discuss performance above emotional reality. What this couple and everyone else knows how to do is make a good show and what this film is trying to do is discover a more nuanced and sincere emotional depth. The film’s final moment, the crux upon which the whole relationship hangs, is slightly ambiguous and under the skin—demonstrating that the performances so prevalent in this universe are the obstacle the characters have to overcome, what they’re looking for has no performance to it at all.
Distributor: IFC Films
Cast: Zoe Lister Jones, Daryl Wein, Julie White, Andrea Martin, Peter Friedman and Sam Rosen
Director: Daryl Wein
Screenwriters: Peter Duchan, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones
Producers: Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Running time: 89 min.
Release date: April 2 NY, April 9 LA