HBO’s Girls has become a shorthand for certain kinds of New Yorkian slice of life dramedies and romances, shaped by the ‘hipster’ spaces and attitudes of articulate inner-city millenials.
Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behaviour (2014), for example, which presented a same-sex relationship and breakup in rom-com retrospective, got labelled by some outlets as a lesbian version of Lena Dunham’s show (on which Akhavan later made an appearance). New rom-com The Boy Downstairs, the first feature from writer-director Sophie Brooks, an NYU film school grad, invites the same comparisons. Its details suggest the aesthetic geography of the urban creatives — a craft beer store, a twinkly roof party, a meet cute at an art installation, an airy, high-windowed apartment — and a protagonist struggling with her calling as a fiction writer. And, most obviously, Diana’s played by Zosia Mamet, one of the girls from Girls, in her first lead role.
Diana has returned to New York from a post-college year in London, working in a bridal store during the day and on her writing at night. She moves into a brownstone apartment, managed by a good-natured landlady (Deirdre O’Connell) with her own creative passions, but is blind-sided by the discovery that her ex, who she dumped before leaving the country, is living in the basement flat of the same building. With his new girlfriend. While Diana struggles with the weirdness of sharing a mail rack with someone she loved, and the resurfacing of unresolved feelings, the film traces, in familiar rom-com briskness, the outline of their romance, its quirks, bumps, and eventual dissolution.
The hook suggests a farcical comedy of awkward forced proximity, but The Boy Downstairs is gentler, sweeter and even a little too ordinary, finding its surest steps in moments of early adulthood confusion. Diana and Ben (Matthew Shear) talk in that halting, sideways mumble that signals nice but essentially insecure young people. He wears nice glasses now, she wears When Harry Met Sally-style dungarees. There’s one big laugh, but it comes from a peripheral character, who pauses a make out session to question his lady about Radiohead —otherwise the tone is amicable and dandering. Mamet’s best known for the slightly ditsy Shoshanna, but shows layers as Diana, bringing low-level vulnerability and humour to a character that’s a little thin on the page.
A writer protagonist can be a bit of red herring. It’s can be used as a dodge, a creative tag to suggest a complicated personality, rather than building it into the script. Of course, writers don’t have to be manic, expressionistic characters — they can, like Diana, be reserved, unsure, creatures. But there isn’t much sense of what Diana’s writing is like, how she feels about it or how her time away, which was the whole reason for the breakup in the first place, changed her.
Where The Boy Downstairs is strongest is in the broader feelings of being young, done with school, and, for the first time, very unsure about the direction you’re going in and the decisions you’ve already made. Diana wants to be friends with her unexpected neighbour but he, quite rationally, does not, and she bristles at their newfound distance. She dumped him because falling in love didn’t fit in with her plan, but there’s the very real chance she’s missed out on something monumentally important, and it calls the whole value of ‘plans’ into question.
When the banter quiets down, and Brooks makes room for Mamet to bring those feelings of confusion and quiet panic to the surface, this otherwise unambitious genre piece becomes suddenly moving. Mamet has two or three scenes where Diana has to get real about her writing and her feelings towards Ben, and she has a chalky, pale rawness that’s actually quite heart-breaking, bringing urgency and importance to an ordinary romance.
For her finale, Brooks errs on the side of resolution, but it’s in the hurt feelings behind cuteness that the film approaches cutting insights about roads not taken and the pain of hindsight. Conor Smyth
The Boy Downstairs is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast and Dundrum and IMC locations, Dublin until Thursday 14th June.