We’ve seen this woman in a hundred movies, mostly mumblecore dramas and indie rom-coms. A mid-to-late twentysomething, she’s invariably white and thin. Her hair is usually the most disheveled part of her appearance, being just unkempt enough to give her the impression of not having quite gotten her life together despite living in a nice apartment in Brooklyn. She has a steady job, but she hates it and harbors dreams of becoming an artist, a designer, a writer. And despite being conventionally beautiful—those thick-rimmed glasses always do a terrible job hiding it—she’s socially awkward and mumbly, prone to odd non sequiturs in the middle of conversations that trail off into nothing. The role found its apotheosis in Greta Gerwig’s performance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) and ever since imitators have been um-ing and ah-ing their way through interminable passion projects.
This time around in Sophie Brooks’ The Boy Downstairs, the gorgeous fish-out-of-water millennial is Diana (Zosia Mamet), a dual American-British citizen who returns to Brooklyn from a two-year residency in England to discover that she’s moved into the apartment one floor above her old boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear). The film switches back and forth between their initial romance, their breakup, and Diana’s frenzied and quite frankly creepy obsession with re-entering his life after coming back home. We know that they’ll end up back together, but only after a bevy of cringe-worthy misunderstandings and sidewalk confrontations where the camera holds the two lovers in alternating close-ups as they ugly cry. The film imagines its saving grace to be its own gentle oddness and quirkiness—this being a world where people will interrupt make-out sessions to ask if their partners like Radiohead (“I’m just asking…”) and where seemingly well-adjusted youngsters start conversations with lines like “I started eating tomatoes again…so that’s my news…” But there’s no real depth behind the oddball artifice, only tired clichés.
The Boy Downstairs is Brooks’ first feature film after graduating from NYU Tisch with a BFA in Film and TV, and it certainly feels like the first film of a student filmmaker fresh outta film school. In trying to say something about life and the experiences of disillusioned, confused young people, it ends up saying nothing. The film is just so many recycled scenes from other, better films that had something original to say. Much of the acting is fine—despite my distaste for the role, Mamet turns in an effective performance. But Brooks’ decision to tell the film largely in flashbacks prevents us from developing any emotional attachment to the characters. After our screening, one of my critic friends mentioned the scene where Diana and Ben officially breakup before her move to England: “I’ve lived that scene. And I felt nothing watching it.”
We’ve seen this woman in a hundred movies. But only because we’ve seen this same movie one hundred times. There’s no need for a 101st.