Sophie Brooks doesn’t try to reinvent the romantic comedy with The Boy Downstairs, she just takes it out for a little spin around Brooklyn, where her gawky would-be artists stumble into love. The writer-director’s first feature is warmly affectionate and maddeningly vague, with half-formed characters, limp plotting, and performances of captivating delicacy, especially from Zosia Mamet as a novelist guided by uncertainty.
Diana (Mamet) is hesitant about her future with Ben (Matthew Shear) and breaks off their relationship before moving overseas. Three years later, Diana returns and unwittingly moves into Ben’s building. He’s not overjoyed to see her. “Woman up!” advises her maternal landlady (Deirdre O’Connell), one of Brooks’s best-drawn characters (but who still comes off as a rough outline of Mrs. Madrigal).
Instead of probing Diana’s discomfort, Brooks introduces a parallel track of flashbacks, so that key moments in her past relationship with Ben run alongside their halting reconciliation. The timelines aren’t visually distinct, and there’s little evidence of maturation from their early to mid twenties: Diana still dresses in toddler chic, and Ben’s scruffy facial hair can’t hide his baby face. Their eager aimlessness has merely become melancholic confusion.
What’s missing in Brooks’s gentle approach is the rom-com fizz and pop, with comic zingers that wound and enlighten. Her humor is all setup, such as having Mamet seemingly costumed as her playwright father for Halloween (round glasses, black turtleneck and coat, jeans, white sneakers), and leaving out the joke’s cutting punch line (a beret). Like love, comedy is painful, and being overprotective dulls the impact.
The Boy Downstairs
Directed by Sophie Brooks
Opens February 16, Village East Cinema