Daryl and Zoe need to break up. They have been together for four years, which, when you are 25 years old, is basically an eternity. However, they are so comfortable together that they have become afraid of being alone. “I still love you,” Zoe says. “So what do we do?”
That is the conflict behind Daryl Wein’s incredibly-low-budget romantic comedy Breaking Upwards, which opened last week at IFC Center in New York City.
The young couple’s solution to this problem? They decide to take three days a week “off” from the relationship.
We know right away that this is a doomed experiment; yet watching it unfold towards its unhappy climax proves to be a lot of fun.
The newly-liberated couple initially enjoys their new arrangement: we see them reading in the park, riding their bikes through the Village, and having cathartic break-up sex. Zoe definitely seems ready to be single. When her friend says, “None of my relationships last more than five minutes,” Zoe replies, “Try sex after four years.”
But under her stoic appearance she is deeply insecure. “You’re afraid to be independent!” her mother tells her. “You need to be alone for a while.” Which Zoe tries—well, kind of: she goes shopping, buys a puppy (“He shit on my Chanel!”), flirts with any guy who’s got the right anatomy, and goes to lots of yoga classes, only to break into tears in the middle of a downward-dog (“I know,” the yoga instructor says, “This is a very emotional pose.”)
Daryl, too, is intoxicated by the idea of his new found freedom, which for him, as for many men his age, is defined almost exclusively by the promise of sex with multiple partners. But after the adrenaline of this realization wears off, he finds himself lonely and dangerously jealous. He sits in his dark bedroom in the pale glow of his laptop for hours on end before calling Zoe’s cell phone dozens of times—on one of their days off, no less. When she finally answers, Daryl hears a male voice in the background, and loses it. “Is that fucking dickface fuck?!” he yells.
When Zoe hangs up on him, he resorts to desperate measures. He tears her room apart looking for clues of her infidelity—even hacks into her laptop. Oh my God, I’m such a douchebag,” he tells himself before reading her email.
The adult figures in Breaking Upwards are not much help to the confused young couple, they disapprove of the “three days off a week” arrangement while simultaneously advocating “free love”. Zoe’s mother not only takes the young couple to a “polyamory party,” she also comes on to Daryl, her daughter’s boyfriend, in a department store dressing room. Then, Daryl’s mentor and employer, an attractive writer and professor, tells him, “We all want to believe in a love that’s sustainable, but it doesn’t exist.” To prove it, she sleeps with him.
Daryl’s parents take a harder line with his progressive break-up experiment. His mother (played by a shrewd, sharp-tongued Julie White) thinks her son is acting like a self-important fool. “I just want to hit him in the head with a shovel!” she cries. Meanwhile, Daryl’s father, an Upper West Side dentist, tries more tactfully to convince his son of the advantages of monogamy. “Look at me! I’m happy!” he says, but directly after this statement he finds himself unable to hold his son’s gaze, like he suddenly doubts his claim to happiness.
I won’t give away the ending; I’ll just say that the emotional climax comes during a Passover Seder with Daryl’s entire extended family as witness.
Breaking Upwards was made on a production budget of $15,000, a tiny fraction of the budget of most feature films. Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones, who star in the movie, are playing themselves: the script, which the couple wrote together, is based on the real-life story of their break-up.
They also produced the film together. Plus, Wein directed the movie, while Lister-Jones, who had a separate acting job during the three-and-a-half-month shoot, also cooked for the cast and crew, and wrote lyrics for the film’s songs (all of which are original), which were composed and recorded by a friend in a Ditmas Park, Brooklyn basement.
The do-it-yourself list goes on: some of the film’s actors were cast from Craigslist, and the movie was promoted on social network sites ranging from Facebook to Funny Or Die. Wein also edited the footage himself in his living room, and color-corrected it with hacked software, which was clearly too expensive to buy legally.
Incredibly, the pair were able to cast Broadway actors Julie White, Andrea Martin, and Peter Friedman, who are all spectacular in their roles as Daryl and Zoe’s parents. After an overdose of assembly-line Hollywood romantic comedies, it is supremely refreshing to watch auxiliary characters given so much thought to their well-roundedness, instead of simply making them clichés servile to plot advancement or cheap laughs.
Aside from being a low-budget labor of love, a triumphant “Fuck you!” to Hollywood, with the added bonus of $40,000 from IFC Center, Breaking Upwards is a creative success as well. The writing is both earnest and funny; the characters are self-important young people, but the script saves them with its refreshing self-awareness and one wonders if the older actors might have helped with some of the writing.
Breaking Upwards is partly indebted to a film genre known as “mumblecore,” named for the inarticulate mumbling of its young characters, who are shown to be aimless and adrift in a world that makes them mostly uncomfortable.
However, the characters in Breaking Upwards don’t mumble—if anything, they over-articulate. They think they can avoid an unhappy break-up through an excess of intelligent words and ideas. They think if they investigate their relationship closely enough, they’ll be able to figure it out, like an old poem or a math problem. They may be eloquent, they may be earnest, but they’re hopelessly wrong.
Breaking Upwards is showing at New York City’s IFC Center through April 15. The film is currently playing in Los Angeles as well and will be released in San Francisco tomorrow (April 16), and is also available on demand.
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– Hunter Stuart