Review by Jacquelin Hipes
We’ve all heard the story before: Girl meets boy. Girl leaves boy. Girls runs into boy several years later. Complications ensue. It’s a simple formula that allows for endless variation, with good and not-so-good results. The Boy Downstairs, the feature-length debut of writer/director Sophie Brooks, falls maddeningly into the middle ground between the two. Its capable if clichéd script allows enough room for the main players to find a little magic, before the disappointing denouement undoes their hard work.
The film shifts between present day and four years in the past. Currently, Diana (Zosia Mamet) has just returned to New York after two years abroad. With no place but a friend’s couch to sleep, she jumps at the opportunity to move into an apartment owned by Amy (Deirdre O’Connell), a motherly former actress and widow who didn’t want to let go of a home with so much family history. What Diana doesn’t know when she signs the lease is that her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) lives in the basement apartment. They met four years earlier, before her move to London, bonding over a shared sense of humor and artistic aspirations. As present-day Ben and Diana adjust to their new and unplanned proximity, we also watch their relationship blossom, then wither, in the past.
The Boy Downstairs attempts to capture the particular pitfalls of forging relationships and a career for Millennials. It often juxtaposes a casual, almost flippant tone alongside scenes of no little warmth that makes for an uneven viewing experience. Leads Mamet and Shear do their best, capturing an earnest angst in the dilemma over discovering yourself with, or without, a partner. As the sage landlady, O’Connell deserves more screen time than she’s given, providing most of the film’s genuine laughs and more than her share of its heart as well.
Three good performances can’t save the story from itself, though. In its final act The Boy Downstairs indulges in a dizzying procession of genre stand-bys: a slow rekindling of affection, a parting of ways, the “I’m a fool, please forgive me” speech, and an empowering montage all follow one another in rapid succession. This might be tolerable if not for the film’s abrupt and puzzling end. Earlier tonal inconsistencies don’t help: is the ambiguous fate of our two lovebirds meant to offer hope, or function as smirking commentary on the on-again, off-again nature of some relationships? Brooks appears to want it both ways, ironically emerging empty-handed.
Fans of the HBO series Girls (on which Mamet was a prominent cast member for the six season run) will probably find plenty to enjoy in both the story and Mamet’s admittedly endearing performance. But without that prior affection, The Boy Downstairs lurks in the middle ground of romantic dramadies, neither funny enough nor sweet enough to distinguish itself from the pack.
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