Zoe and Daryl are kind of the perfect couple. At first.

At some points during its running time, Breaking Upwards feels like the exact kind of all-too-precious hipster opus that seep from New York City like a relatively inoffensive pus. The movie can’t really get away from this. It’s about 20-something Jewish young adults in NYC. They have frank discussions, deal with overbearing parents, contemplate their Jewishness, and dress like all the people copying their style here in Saskatoon. They also go to hip parties, aspire to be writers or actresses, and so on. Whatever the trappings of their lives, though, it is their relationship to each other (and maybe to others, mileage will vary) that wins past the familiarity of the concept and the general lack of especial sympathy for upper class New Yorkers with white people problems. And who ride those fucking horrible retro bicycles I hate with every fiber of my being. I don’t know why they offend me so, but they do. Oh how they do.

Anyway. What is going on with them and their dying romance is something most people in our/their generation can relate to and their approach to it is pretty novel. How they navigate it all and where it takes them is the point of the movie, I think. That it is mostly incomprehensible to the more traditional generations is underlined to emphasize that hey, this movie is about the kinds of relationships we are having right now, not the ones that were had by our parents or that they, TV, and so on tell us we should be having.

The conceit is that they organize “days off” which basically means time apart from each other. They are not necessarily doing this as a beginning stage of a breakup, which is sort of what you go into the movie thinking. More like they are just trying to find ways to fend off the doldrums that have begun to fray the edges of the relationship. They have an ease and comfort with each other, a frankness, that anyone watching should envy (unless they have it, genuinely have it, and aren’t lying to themselves) even as they plan this all out. Of course, one of them is more bored than the other.

I dunno what it is but I find Zoe Lister-Jones to be completely gorgeous. You know what? It’s the eyes. Definitely. And that she looks like a real woman.

Zoe (played by Zoe Lister-Jones) wants out of the confines of the relationship much more avidly than Daryl (Daryl Wein who directed the movie and co-wrote it with Zoe and Peter Duchan). She confides to a friend that she is just plain bored. She takes to their new situation much more completely than Daryl does and is actually pretty much a bitch. Not that Daryl is much better. I disliked him for most of the film immensely, with his ineffectual codependency and his effete voice he just sounded and acted like a spineless douchebag. And Zoe comes off like a selfish, self-centered cunt who wants to have her cake and eat it too. But all that eventually changes as they both test the limits of their bond, what they want out of life and the contained experience, and grow as people even as their positions in the relationship slowly shift.

Eventually, you get to like Daryl because he’s basically a really good guy. He handles Zoe’s more explicit desire to experiment with other men with quite a bit of humor and almost-irrepressible good nature. It turns out, though, that Zoe is pretty fragile and her experimentation with non-Daryl figures in her life does not go particularly well. Meanwhile, Daryl’s experiences are more progressive as he allows himself to also meet and romance (or at least nail) other women, including Olivia Thirlby in a nice little cameo. As Daryl stops pining for Zoe and stops getting mad at her for ditching their codependent status quo, he actually grows as a person. Meanwhile, Zoe is dramatically affected by her own experiences, which are regressive, and ends up being the semi-tragic victim of her own lack of understanding for what she had in Daryl. She gets in the end, and that moment where they silently confront each other over the corpse of their love, only works because we have seen her be punished (and punish herself) for her mistakes. We have the sense that both of these people are going to be better off now, particularly Daryl, but that each has also lost something and so that small kernel of tragedy is very much present, just enough to make the ending bittersweet.

On the performance front, a lot of dimwits are going to think this is poorly acted. Because there aren’t many characters, the movie is carried on the Zoe and Daryl’s shoulders. They are pretty good, as are the other genuine actors in the film. Their performances are naturalistic, probably highly improvised, and designed to come off as rough around the edges. On the other hand, there are a few people in the movie (Paul Schrieber, you were so good on The Wire but what were you thinking here?) that just come off bad. Oh well, that’s probably the result of casting your friends in your navel-gazing mumblecore movie.

The most vibrant personalities aside from them are their mothers, played by Julie White (the crazy mom from Transformers!) and Andrea Martin. Julie White especially gets a lot of play as the wearer of all pants in Daryl’s family household. She is overbearing, intrusive, and a meddler. She also has a pretty good sense of humor but basically no sense of perspective outside her own narrow point of view. Andrea Martin is the “cool mom” who is critical of but also very friendly with Zoe.

While considerably more restrained, Julie White shows some of the ferocity and humor that actually works well for me in Transformers.

Andrea Martin looks so much like Cher that it frightens me.

A not-insignificant portion of the movie deals with the relationships between Daryl and Zoe and their wildly different mothers. I think there’s some attempt at subtext here, maybe a point trying to emerge about how these women have affected their children. More concretely, their divergent attempts to communicate with their children through the implosion of their relationship is making the point I talked about before regarding the generation gap between how they view relationships (Daryl’s mom is in a long-term marriage that may have very little love in it while Zoe’s mom seems like a career bachelorette) in much different terms than someone who’s in their 20’s would. This resonates with the audience, drawing in both the younger and older viewers who can relate or get some perspective respectively.

All in all Breaking Upwards surprised me toward its last third when I realized I had come to feel a certain kinship with Daryl and Zoe and a degree of empathy for them. I have been in situations not unlike some of the ones they find themselves in. The emotional journey of the movie does work even if facets of it are pushing toward cringe or eye-roll inducing. It’s also just nice to see a movie that feels much more realistic about the upsides and downsides of love, relationships, and breaking up. Not that there aren’t other examples, it’s more that each one is a tiny island in the impassive sea of vapid “romance” movies that spew cliches, unrealistic situation comedy, normalized mores, and someone else’s safe, comfortable version of ideal love.

One more time just because.

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