by ALICE GREGORY
dir. Daryl Wein
It’s OK, honey. Just come. No really, it’s fine. And so begins Breaking Upwards, the debut narrative feature film by Daryl Wein. Based on a real life experiment with his girlfriend, actress Zoe Lister-Jones, the film chronicles the strategized breakup of a codependent New York couple. Their silent, boring sex is made up of visible micromovements and lame sighs. Zoe brushes her teeth while Daryl sits on the toilet millimeters away. They text friends during breakfast. Romance has withered – or maybe evolved? – into a liberty best reserved for siblings. Within minutes of the opening credits, they mutually acknowledge their apathy and seal the conversation with what might be the laziest and truest epilogue to a long-term relationship: “It’s, like, I still love you.”
Without the impetus of a third party nudging along a break-up (impressive), Daryl and Zoe both agree that something’s gotta give. They seem brightened with energy— intoxicated with the prospect of planning their separation. Enough with the loungewear and should-I-pick-up-some-milk-on-the-way-home phone calls! It’s decided that they’ll take “on and off days,” the specifics determined mostly by their television-viewing schedule, since they still want to be able to watch American Idol together. (Mutual investment in bad television is a sure symptom of passion’s decline). Over coffee, the two draft up a list of conditions for their days off: no calling or Gchatting, she “gets” Whole Foods, he “gets” all city parks. “Growing” and “freedom" are also on the list.
From the panoramas of bookshelves and record collections to what Daryl’s mom refers to as his “girl jeans” (“They’re APC!”) to the default iPhone ringtone that scores tense conversations, the details of Breaking Upwards are so precise they border on satirical. I don’t think we ever find out where they went to college, but it was probably Oberlin. You don’t run into people all the time in New York because of its objective size, but rather because everyone’s own New York is so small. There’s a limited amount of bars where you can drink cheap beer with people like yourself, only a few places to buy acceptable pants, and maybe five subways lines you’re ever — let’s face it — really going to take.
This kind of material specificity is thorny — it can be emotionally limiting on the one hand (Sofia Coppola) or alienating in its insularity on the other (Wes Anderson) — but here, it actually feels apt. The minutiae works in favor of such a geographically-proscribed project. Real estate constraints (size-wise, moneywise) being what they are in New York, young couples can find themselves shoved into a premature domesticity that makes every object a point of contention. This is the sort of life which deserves to have its signifiers exposed.
When Daryl and Zoe smoke pot with her mom, a new-age Brooklynite, judicious changes in cadence and pace make for the most authentic depiction of being stoned I’ve ever seen in a film. Laughs sputter and forlorn gazes flicker into goofiness. You can just imagine how slowly the young couple would kiss if they were alone; the dry sounds their lips would make sloughing together like Velcro. Zoe’s mom kills the buzz with liberated mom-type explicatives: “Welcome to Brooklyn, you shit-sniffing cocksucker!”(this is directed at Zoe’s new puppy).
The mothers in Breaking Upwards are maybe the film’s greatest characters: neurotic, overly invested in not only their childrens’ lives but also in their childrens’ partners’ lives. Daryl helps Zoe’s mom pick out a sexy dress for a date; Daryl’s mom spies on Zoe while she flirts with another man. These are moms Julian Schnabel would like to seduce; they drink red wine, still have good upper arms and allow their temples to go silver. They’ve retained a vitality that’s already fading in Zoe.
The surplus of invested relatives has fast-forwarded Daryl and Zoe’s relationship by about twenty years. There’s too much family here and not enough butterflies. Too much Bleecker Street bicycling and not enough drunken boning. Manhattan feels tiny, as does the central relationship. These are educated young adults with liberal upbringings living in the greatest city in the world, yet their lives are smaller than a single dumpling from Vanessa’s. Daryl and Zoe are victims of auto-asphyxiation, a misguided corrective to their own freedom.
Daryl babysits the child of a Human Rights professor. Zoe auditions for commercials and rehearses her play. Everything is going great until they fall for other people, sleep with those other people, and then tell each other about it. Of course. Daryl is dragged to a social function at his family’s synagogue where he meets Erika, a haunting Jewess played by Olivia Thirbly (who is now to smart films about New York as Dakota Fanning was to any movie with a kid in it in the Aughts). Zoe falls for a douchey cast member with a shit-eating grin. He wears a fedora and drinks a post-coital beer a few minutes too soon. In spite of honesty, feelings are hurt. Daryl throws Zoe’s stuff all over the apartment; Zoe weeps in yoga class. "I know this is a really emotional pose," says the yoga instructor. "It’s a hip opener."
The ratio of argument to intimacy hovers always at about 1:1, so we can feel just how hard – and how crucial – this relationship will be to end. Daryl and Zoe are well matched and they do make each other happy, but they’re also young enough that they are each other’s reciprocal creation, and that’s a problem.
Daryl takes a job in Vancouver and as he hails the cab to drive him to JFK, Zoe watches, wet-lashed, from across the street. They make eye contact, smile, cry a little, and he drives off. They’ll both be fine, but not quite yet. Wein’s ability to translate himself into a character and his life into a story makes for something so much better than either memoir or fiction. The anticipated intimacy of a new relationship (I’ll meet his dad! She’ll wear my shirt to bed!) has soured (His dad annoys the shit out of me! Can’t you wear something feminine?!).
These are the kids who postpone marriage in favor of careers and grad school, who wait to spawn until they can afford brownstones and organic produce. Relationships absorb the urgency of commitment; security can be a reprieve from personal freedom. Surely there’s a joy in staying home Saturday night, but precocious cohabitation is also a curse. When making out with your lover feels like kissing your own hand, in other words, it's time to get out.