Back when I was in high school, I showed a group of my friends Woody Allen's Annie Hall. When it was over, everyone agreed that they'd enjoyed it, but I was asked to explain why, exactly, it was such a classic/masterpiece/staple of American filmdom. At the time I didn't really have a good answer beyond the fact that it was funny. But looking back, I saw that aside from being one of the best romantic comedies, it was also one of the saddest romantic tragedies. And the tragedy isn't theatrical melodramatic. The couple isn't separated by war or terminal illness or mutual suicide or anything like that. The tragedy is quieter: the lovers separate because, simply, people fall out of love. Or, put directly by a stranger passing Woody Allen on the street, "Love fades." And afterwords, when everything settles, the partners are older and hopefully wiser, able to look back fondly from a distance without bitterness or regret. And that, to me, is more beautiful and sad than any idealized tragic love affair.
All of which brings us to Breaking Upwards, another New York tragicomic love story, which I had the good fortune of seeing this weekend at the Brooklyn International Film Festival (or BIFF). Breaking Upwards follows two New York hipsters who, after a four year relationship, decide that they're no longer happy together but somehow can't stand being apart. And so they decide to break up by increments: they take days off, experiment with open relationships, and hope that they can wean themselves off of co-dependence.
The film feels very much like a labor of love. In an autobiographical move (one that feels more gutsy than indulgent), filmmakers Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones co-wrote the script based on their own relationship and star, somewhat nakedly, as fictionalized versions of themselves, even sharing their first name with their character. (Wein also directs, and Lister-Jones wrote the lyrics for the film's original songs). But more important is that it feels real: intimate and heartfelt.
At its best, the film feels very well observed, with a naturalistic tone that knows how to find small bits of comedy and sadness in the details. The performers play off one another with ease and chemistry, as the situation starts funny and turns melancholy. Daryl and Zoe trade off the upper-hand, each taking turns feeling hurt and, despite their intentions, being hurtful.
The film plays with conflicting desires: possessiveness with a need for freedom, looking for someone else and regretting it afterwords. And for the most part, it plays the emotion with a light hand. "I don't want to do this if you're not OK," Zoe says to Daryl before she goes to stay with another man. "Yes you do," he cuts her off. And then the exchange ends with exasperated sighs and a parting of ways.
Unfortunately, the film does less well in moments that feel more calculated: a laugh line here or there, a character, a scene. Near the end, the public dinner table climax (followed by a witty remark) feels closer to stock movie situations than the naturalism that suits the film so well.
But it ends quiet and open, with graceful ambiguity.
Part of Breaking Upwards' appeal is the hand-crafted appeal of independent film. Extras are enthusiastically credited based on how many times they were willing to appear (3x!), and the way the lighting sometimes switches from realism to expressionism, rather than an inconsistency, feels like new filmmakers playing with technique. Even the occasional low sound quality adds to the feeling of young people making do.
At the screening, the filmmakers said that they've been having difficulty finding a distributor so far, which is a pity. The movie is not perfect or Earth-shattering or anything more than a fine redux of older ideas (the main caveat is that anyone with an aversion for hipsters would likely be turned off). But it's funny and it's sad, covering time-honored thematic ground with an open-hearted affection that makes those time-honored themes feel personal. And it's better than most movies that are out right now.
At the screening I went to, you could feel everyone on the emotional wavelength of the movie. Personal and universal are similar. Here's hoping that more people get the chance to see it.
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