(Original post at The National Student)
Part indie-romance, part mainstream comedy, The Boy Downstairs features strong performances from its leads but struggles to deliver laughs.
The Boy Downstairs stars Girls alumni Zosia Mamet as Diana, a writer who has recently returned from a two-year stint in London. She’s now in search of that most elusive of prizes: a decent place to live in New York City. Diana finds a spacious apartment with a friendly landlady, and all seems well- until she notices her ex-boyfriend’s name on the mailbox downstairs.
Through flashbacks, we see how the relationship between Diana and Ben (Matthew Shear) developed, whilst their present selves tiptoe awkwardly around one another. The eventual cause of their breakup becomes clear quickly, but that’s not the film’s concern; screenwriter and director Sophie Brooks is far more interested in showing you how the couple falls apart.
The marketing for The Boy Downstairs pitches it as an “original” take on the romantic comedy, whilst in the same breath likening it to mumblecore classics like Frances Ha and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy.
In reality, neither the plot nor the characters of The Boy Downstairs are unconventional, and the promise of originality hampers the film’s story.
The Boy Downstairs is a mish-mash of standard rom-com tropes and the stylistic trappings of independent cinema, seemingly unable to decide what kind of film it wants to be. As a result, the quirkiness of characters like Diana seems like an affectation, whilst the film’s romantic moments occasionally border on insincere.
Walking a line between mainstream and indie romance isn’t an inherently bad road to travel down. At times, The Boy Downstairs hits exactly the right mark, like in the awkward rooftop Halloween party that Diana and her best friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) attend.
Yet other moments, like the scene where Gabby’s casual hook-up interrupts a kiss to ask her if she likes Radiohead, feel contrived. Frankly, I’d welcome an embargo on writers as main characters for a few years; watching creatives struggle in retail jobs is relatable to a certain section of the population, but it’s not exactly ground-breaking.
Mamet is likeable, but her fine performance doesn’t mask how flat Diana is as a protagonist. Shear is a convincing everyman, awkward yet endearingly willing to make himself vulnerable, and his chemistry with Mamet is strong.
To the credit of Mamet and Shear, the breakup of Diana and Ben is genuinely moving, perhaps because the writing loses its self-consciousness when it allows the leads to simply act.
Yet these qualities highlight the missed potential of The Boy Downstairs, a piece that could have been so much better if it were more comfortable with its cultural position, existing somewhere between box-office bait and cult entertainment.
Sadly, the film suffers under the weight of genre expectations, striving for originality and not quite hitting the mark. The Boy Downstairs is a decent debut for Sophie Brooks, but not the instant classic it strives to be.
The Boy Downstairs premiered in April 2017 at Tribeca Film Festival.