Breaking Upwards takes the worst stereotypes of a DIY film about a young couple working through their relationship problems in New York City and throws them out the window, leaving the juicy, real bits for audiences to sift through. At first you might think that not much happens in Breaking Upwards. The truth is that a lot happens, but it happens so subtly and naturally that it seems to take our protagonists by surprise as much as the viewer.
Daryl (Daryl Wein) and Zoe (Zoe Lister-Jones, who is in the upcoming Angelina Jolie actioner Salt) have been together for four years; they live together, do yoga together, ride their bikes together, dress up and walk in the Halloween parade together, and are growing increasingly bored together. Zoe is the first to suggest they take a few days off from each other each week, both for personal growth and perhaps the option to see others, and Daryl, who is initially hurt and surprised, seems increasingly interested by the possibilities this could offer. As the rules grow blurrier and harder to navigate, it becomes difficult for them to see whether or not trying to open their relationship up will ultimately break them up or help rejuvenate a lackluster love.
The change in their relationship has a ripple effect on their families, who have grown to love their child's significant other. Daryl thinks his parents (Peter Friedman and Julie White) have a miserable relationship and is scared of emulating it; meanwhile, Daryl's mom feels just as estranged towards Daryl as he keeps her in the dark about his relationship with Zoe as Zoe herself eventually does. On the other hand, Zoe's mom Helaine (Andrea Martin) smokes pot with them, goes shopping with Daryl, and gets into typical mother/daughter fights with Zoe. "You are so fucking judgmental sometimes!" Helaine fumes as they fight in a restaurant. It is just this type of spot-on dialogue that makes Breaking Upwards a defiant thumb in the eye of anyone who might try to lump it in with the mumblecore crowd.
And, at first glance, this could be an easy mistake to make. Breaking Upwards does bear some of the hallmarks of those m-word films: a minuscule budget; a couple in their early twenties fumbling their way through love and sex in post-college life; and the stars doing double duty as writers, producers, and, in Wein's case, director. (Peter Duchan is the third screenwriter and an associate producer on the film.)
In fact, the writers worked actively against the lackadaisical DIY paradigm by fleshing out the script as fully as possible. Zoe Lister told one interviewer, "We worked really intensely on the script, each character's arc, strong dialogue, structure, etc. Because we were frustrated at the number of DIY films that were missing those elements." This shows when one of the characters lets a zinger fly, as when Daryl's mom harangues him about his skinny pants. "When my grandchildren come out short and stubby, we'll know why. It's those pants! He paid more than $100 for those girl pants." Later, after a seder gone horribly wrong, Helaine leaves with a flourish and a "Next year in Jerusalem!" as her adieu.
What's fresh about Breaking Upwards is that even though it's very talky - Zoe and Daryl are trying their disentanglement down to play-acting how the other might feel when one goes on a date or begins dating someone - it's still lively, and even when it's painful, it's sweet. When one friend tells Zoe that her own relationships last five minutes, Zoe theatrically says, "Try sex after four years!" sticking her thumb down and blowing a raspberry. (Of course, Zoe is an actress, but still.) Somehow, the writers have managed a delicate balancing act of making their characters likeable but flawed, sarcastic without being cruel, earnest without being twee; even when they do bad things to each other, we are not being dared to empathize with them as we are in Greenberg. (And for the record, I did like Greenberg, squirm-inducing as it is.)
It would have been very easy for things to get sloppy, though, because Wein and Lister-Jones are a couple in real life, and the movie is "a fictional narrative loosely inspired by their open relationship." Stein told Cinematical, "They were not called 'Daryl' and 'Zoe' to begin with. They were just fictional characters. Zoe and I were the templates for the characters. There were some similarities, but obviously a lot of the qualities were fictionalized, like Zoe's an actress in real life and I'm not a journalist in real life. But in terms of qualities, I don't think we were really thinking about how to best portray us, how we were being represented. I think we were trying to make the characters complex, with flaws, and balance. I think we just tried to show two real people. In retrospect, I wish I could have made myself more interesting or smarter! The line is so blurred at this point that I don't know the difference between the characters and the real 'Zoe' or the real 'Daryl.'"
How this couple managed to work together so closely on this film for three-and-a-half years is beyond me, and even more so to think it's something they went through themselves – the movie is itself a re-processing of them processing how to work through issues in their relationship, and the end result is an echo chamber of self-analysis.
That might sound painful to watch, but it's not. Wein and Lister-Jones are a pleasure, and even scenes that should read as a little too cute - like when Zoe has a breakdown in yoga and her teacher says that it's natural because they're doing hip-opening exercises and that releases emotions (which is totally something yoga teachers say!) - just don't. It's a special treat to see the sharp comedian Andrea Martin make her single Brooklyn artist mom leap off the screen, and Joanie White really brings it as a three-dimensional neurotic Jewish mom. There's not a mediocre performance in the lot; even Pablo Schreiber (The Wire, Happythankyoumoreplease) is excellent in a minor role as an intense but sleazy costar of Zoe's.
If you're looking for a kind but real romantic drama, please do check out Breaking Upwards. It opens this weekend in NYC, April 9th in LA, and April 16th in San Francisco. It is available on demand through IFC until June 22, 2010. For more info, check the official website.