Not every film need to do something new or even particularly innovative to be a great film. Sometimes an oldie really is a goodie. Yes, the stakes are inevitably higher. The bar for a great chocolate chip cookie is higher than the bar for soufflé, so if you make me a chocolate chip cookie, it better be a damn good one. The Boy Downstairs is a chocolate chip cookie of a romantic comedy. It’s not going to tantalize adventurous pallets, but for those in search of comfort food, you can’t do much better.
The premise feels like something born out of an improv scenario. Zosia Mamet (Girls) stars as Diana, an aspiring novelist who moves back to New York City after spending a few years in London. After struggling to find an apartment, she finally strikes gold and lands a place at a building run by Amy (Deirdre O’Connell, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), an actress turned landlady who connects with Diana’s artistic ambitions. It’s not until she moves in that she notices a familiar name on one of the apartment mailboxes. In a twist of New York kismet, her ex-boyfriend, Ben, lives downstairs. What’s worse, Ben, played by Matthew Shear (Mistress America), is now dating Meg (Sarah Ramos, Parenthood), the agent who scored her the apartment.
It’s a premise so ingeniously simple that, quite frankly, I’m shocked I haven’t seen this exact setup before. The Boy Downstairs is the feature film debut of writer/director Sophie Brooks, and like most first films, it wears its influences on its sleeve. There are shades of When Harry Met Sally and Annie Hall visible throughout, but the film feels more like an update than a rip off. Brooks’s script maintains a contemporary authenticity, managing to feel both very familiar, and entirely of the moment.
It’s a testament to her writing that within a narrative as contrived as this, the scenes approach something that feels like verisimilitude. The film is loosely structured, jumping playfully back and forth in time to Diana and Ben’s awkward new life as neighbors with abstracts from their past relationship, giving these characters plenty of space to breath, and allowing the comedy to erupt from within the characters, as opposed to imposing it on them.
Zosia Mamet performance as Diana is something of a magic trick, breathing genuine depth into a character that could have easily collapsed into a two dimensional cliche. Diana’s relationship with Matthew Shear’s Ben is treated with care and finesse and a charming clumsiness. The Boy Downstairs is one of the first films to show a, for lack of a better phrase, ‘millennial’ relationship without irony or derision. Their relationship eschews the notion that chemistry is born out of playful repartee, plumbing deeper to base their motivation in genuine affection.
This is indicative of a kind of pattern in The Boy Downstairs. The film is filled with characters, tropes, and moments that could have easily folded into something trite, self-reflexive, and disposable, but the film consistently works through them successfully.
Even with a cast as small as this one, it’s impressive that no character deflates into caricature. Amy, the widow landlady tries her hand at acting again; Diana’s college friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) learns what she wants out of a relationship. Brooks keeps the scope small enough to imbue even secondary character’s with rich story arcs.
While the performances are all admirable, Sophie Brooks’s writing is the real star of the show. Brooks has a talent for dialog, crafting scenes that capture the modern lexicon without being reductive. The result is a funny and tragic portrayal of what might be the most authentic 21st century romance to date.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
The romantic comedy is a genre of few triumphs. It’s too often seen as something to transcend or subvert, as though romantic comedies were merely dramas that weren’t clever or deep enough. Maybe it’s just that its a genre that’s truly difficult to get right. Sophie Brooks has tried her hand at a familiar recipe and made something wonderful. The Boy Downstairs has such surprising charm and depth, that I haven’t even mentioned that it’s also a very funny film. It manages, the way most great films, particularly great comedies do, to feel both timeless and entirely of its time. The Boy Downstairs is a movie blissfully devoid of gimmicks, hooks, or subversions. It’s a classic formula modernized and made write. In other words, it’s the best chocolate chip cookie I’ve had in a long time.
The Boy Downstairs is having its premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.