THE BOY DOWNSTAIRS — TriBeCa Film Festival Review
It’s a classic formula — girl meets boy, girl dumps boy, girl inadvertently moves into the same Ft. Greene brownstone as boy several years later — in Writer/Director Sophie Brooks’ bittersweet, comic and charming film The Boy Downstairs, starring Zosia Mamet (Girls), which premiered Sunday night at the TriBeCa Film Festival.
The split-time narrative opens in midwinter, with a shivering Diana (Mamet) returning a sweater to her ex-boyfriend Ben (the appealingly sensitive and schlubby Matthew Shear) on the street outside his NYC apartment building before making a tearful goodbye in advance of her move to London. We then jump ahead three years to the present and her somewhat less than triumphant return to New York, illustrated by her lament to her best friend Gabby (Diana Irvin) of being “basically a homeless person”. Gabby is quick to fix the issue by connecting Diana with the attractive but humorless Meg (Sarah Ramos), who shows Diana a improbably lovely vacant brownstone apartment. After meeting the landlord Amy (den mother Dierdre O’Connell), she moves in, only to discover to her shock and horror that Ben is her downstairs neighbor.
This anti-meet-cute premise strains credulity but is easily forgiven in light of the skilled hand Brooks shows in weaving a compelling story, flashing back and forth between two time periods – exploring the growth of Diana and Ben’s relationship four years earlier and her attempt to manage its aftermath in the present.
Mamet and Shear share comfortable chemistry and sneaky humor that any veteran of a good relationship will recognize. It stands in stark contrast to Ben’s current girlfriend – Meg, who remains unimpressed and unamused by Diana, wary of her presence upstairs, despite Meg’s best attempts “I’m trying hard to be cool about it.” Diana’s numerous run ins with Ben and Meg (though mostly innocent) do little to help Diana’s case that she’s no threat. Aided by the daffy Gabby, who is constantly eating food yet stays rail thin, Diana reintegrates into life in New York and does her best to pursue her writing career while paying the bills through work in a bespoke bridal dress shop (and a swipe at the bridal industrial complex). She winds up bonding with her landlord Amy, who cheerfully recounts her dormant acting career, but is still clearly recovering from the loss of her husband several years before.
What sets this apart from other romantic comedies of its ilk is the winning qualities of the two leads and the material’s ability to milk humor from bad situations and good intentions, leading to moments of genuine emotion. We see Diana’s sincere efforts to make the relationship work, even introducing Ben to her father (played with deliciously cool control by Arliss Howard) who means well when he asks her not to commit to something she knows may be undone by her upcoming move. Knowing that the relationship is doomed ads a poignancy to these moments, allowing the audience to share the bittersweet quality of remembered love alongside Diana.
The film is an exploration of how difficult it is to trust oneself that real love is enough to make any relationship work, despite any potential hurdles. Young love seems too good to be true in most cases. After all, in New York City, it’s hard to find a good man… and even harder to find a good apartment.