It’s no secret the rom com has seen better days. Subsisting off of a tried and true formula for years that before sputtering to a stop in the mid-aughts, the genre’s golden days have largely come and gone except in the indie film sphere, which still sees its share of both uncommonly delightful (and decidedly humdrum) entries. Fortunately, The Boy Downstairs finds itself comfortably square in the former category, a penetratingly funny and surprisingly emotionally intense kind of romance that bravely probes the buzz of first love in unexpectedly brilliant ways.
But for all its unique charm, let’s get one thing out of the way: writer/director Sophie Brooks’ debut does little in its logline to distinguish itself from the crush of anonymous, quirky coming-of-age slogs that litter festivals like Tribeca, where the film had its world premiere. Even so, the film follows Diana (Zosia Mamet), an author returning to New York City after a creatively motivated stint in London, who manages to find a pretty perfect Brooklyn brownstone – only to find her ex-boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) is her downstairs neighbor. But for all the “oh shucks” sticky sweetness that premise might imply, Brooks manages to use that familiar formula to tell a chaste and aching love story with just enough world-weary Brooklynite haze and unconventionality to stay on the right side of sentimentality.
The titular boy, for starters, isn’t the object of affection often found in the genre: a soft-spoken, rounded edged teddy bear type, Ben would often be the type left behind in favor of an edgier partner prospect in a film such as this one. Instead, he becomes a misleading emblem of the life that Diana might have had if she hadn’t broken it off with him. At first, Diana’s awkward attempts to rekindle a friendship with her ex-flame ring false, but Brooks smartly throws things into relief by one simple caveat: her break-up with Ben wasn’t a messy fiasco, but one of necessity.
Brooks tells the story through a series of flashbacks: opening the film with what might have been Ben and Diana’s final interaction: a desperate kiss in the January cold before an abrupt exeunt, alternating with her now less empowered present, smartly comparing the couple’s comfortable chemistry with Diana’s awkward task of re-courting Ben (new girlfriend and all).
But The Boy Downstairs isn’t without its own weaknesses: there are the requisite New York hipster film failings that include an all-white cast and a completely inconceivable quality of life for Diana, a part-time shop girl and unemployed writer who somehow manages to live by herself in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Funnily enough, it’s a vestige of the same problems that plagued Mamet’s most iconic role in Girls, but the film rings emotionally true enough as to mostly outweigh its most egregious stretches of the imagination.
Still, Brooks has much to be proud of in her heart-wrenching (and snortingly funny) debut, perhaps most of all the decision to cast Mamet, who easily emerges as the film’s MVP. Shedding any trace of the sugar rush mania that helped the young actress carve out a pop culture niche for herself on Girls, Mamet gives a raw and effortlessly goofy performance that helps set her apart from the cavalcade of soul-searching New Yorkers that have graced the screen before her.
It’s in the specificity of The Boy Downstairs that it thrives. Brooks perfectly captures the party dynamic of young Brooklyn gatherings, vividly skewering hipster hookup culture and mustachioed meet-cutes on rooftops, while still managing to approach her central love story with maximum pathos. It’s ultimately a stunning debut, and a story that could likely only be told this way by a young filmmaker: a tale of first love ringing with regret and crackling with still untapped possibility.
The Boy Downstairs doesn’t currently have a release date. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Click here to catch up on all of our Tribeca coverage and reviews thus far.