Film Review: The Boy Downstairs

Solipsistic rom-com about an aspiring New York writer and the ex-boyfriend who lives in her new apartment building.
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Writer-director Sophie Brooks says in her director’s statement, “The stories I most like to tell are personal and simple ones that look at how we get in our own way and can often self-sabotage.” Fair enough. This is precisely the sort of story she has told in her feature debut, The Boy Downstairs, and so if we are to consider the film in the light of the filmmaker’s intentions, it is successful. And yet it begs the questions: Just how simple is too simple? At what point does the personal transgress into myopia?

Diana (Zosia Mamet) is an aspiring writer who has just returned to New York after a two-year stint in London. She finds a sunny apartment in a brownstone whose landlady is a wise, aging actress (Deirdre O’Connell, one of the best parts of the movie), though in order to pay the rent, she must work at a bridal shop where the clientele is expectably heinous. It isn’t her ideal situation, but life is about to get far more complicated: Turns out, Diana’s ex-boyfriend and first love, Ben (Matthew Shear), lives in the apartment below hers. What are the odds? Not that astronomical, actually, when you consider Diana’s realtor is also Ben’s new girlfriend. Complicated. Diana has convinced herself she only wants to be Ben’s friend, but we know how that goes. Vacillating between moments of crazy ex-girlfriendom and pathos, all while trying to write a novel, Diana must figure out what she wants and, yes, how to get out of her own way to attain it.

Structurally, the film works well. We open with a flashback of Diana and Ben just before Diana left for London. Diana’s present-action troubles are periodically interrupted by other flashbacks that chart the course of their relationship. By the time Diana figures things out, her realization feels earned, in the sense that we have arrived there neither too quickly nor too slowly. A bit predictably, maybe, a touch paint-by-the-numbers, but effectively.

The dialogue is polarizing. Brooks goes in hard for verisimilitude, either writing or encouraging in her actors all the “umms,” awkward pauses, and terrifically empty statements that too often pass for flirting in conversations among young, modern neurotics. (The question, “How many ‘As’ are there in ‘banana?’” is cause for much hilarity between Diana and Ben. I hope you’re happy, Jerry Seinfeld. These are your progeny.) Does it sound true-to-life? Yes. Does it grate? God, yes. Even Millennials say something sometimes, and not only when we’re giving heartfelt speeches. Perhaps if the film were trying to parody the way we speak, its dialogue might be more tolerable, but its overall air is far too earnest to support that idea.

The film never strays far from its emphasis on Diana’s personal troubles as she struggles to grow up, and this can make for some sincere and relatable moments (like when Diana confesses to her landlady she has no idea what she’s doing, and this frightens her), as well as some obnoxious ones. Diana’s privilege, to go in for modern talk, is everywhere apparent. We know that she is a picky eater, but when she tosses into a Washington Square Park garbage can an entire bowl stuffed to the gills with food, just because she doesn’t like the taste (her friend likes it well enough—give it to her for leftovers!), one can’t help but cringe. Certainly, the moment reveals character, but if she were really a struggling writer, she would most certainly not have thrown away so much food; in fact, she would most certainly not have spent the $15 it likely cost to buy such a large bowl of food for lunch to begin with. Though again, certainly, it reveals character.

Things grow more troublesome when inadvertent moments of entitlement are used to bring our lovers together. At one point Diana and Ben are eating at an Italian restaurant. Diana asks the waiter for a slice of lemon for her water. She is told they have no lemons. But lemon risotto is on the menu, she insists. She is told they have no lemons for the drinks. Strange? Sure. Kind of funny? A bit. But the “Oook…” and indignation with which Diana greets this information is not so funny, and the bit does not become any funnier when Diana and Ben joke about the lack of lemons between themselves. Earlier in the film Diana was forced to deal with a bridezilla who made an unreasonable request, and the parallels between that scene and this are striking, only here it is Diana for whom we’re meant to root and not an unequivocally nasty client who is acting the brat and seemingly unaware of the fact. I believe the “joke” about the lemons is supposed to make us feel the warmth that still exists between Diana and Ben, but it exudes a palpable sense of entitled ickiness that gets in the way.

If you disliked the HBO show for which Mamet is best known, “Girls,” you will not like The Boy Downstairs, which is preoccupied with many of the same themes, though it lacks the television series’ sharp wit and daring. If Diana is sometimes off-putting, it isn’t because the filmmakers are trying to send her up to make a point, as was the case with just about everyone on “Girls”; just the opposite, in fact. She is taken very seriously. The film is laudable as the expression of a specific and consistent point of view. Whether or not the view is worth a look is another question.

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