Last year’s The Boy Downstairs is a small, quiet romcom. It’s the kind of film that’s very easy to dismiss without even seeing, because it’s “annoying” or shallow or twee, because of its offbeat sense of humour not registering for all viewers, because it’s catnip for the unbelievably tedious “pointing out that a fictional character in New York lives in an apartment they could not realistically afford” crowd. But that’s a mistake. Equal parts Nora Ephron and Noah Baumbach, The Boy Downstairs succeeds at being both funny and romantic. If it, at times, follows the romcom formula a little closer than it needs to, it is elevated by Zosia Mamet’s great lead performance and especially its dialogue. How you execute the formula always matters more than how closely you follow it.
Diana (Mamet) has returned to New York after moving to London when she finished college. She works at a bridal shop, but she wants to be writer, even as she studiously avoids working on her novel. She finds an apartment through Meg, a real estate agent, and after signing her lease discovers Ben (Matthew Shear) – her ex-boyfriend, who she broke up with right before she left for London – lives downstairs. And is dating Meg. The film cuts between scenes from Ben and Diana’s relationship and eventual break-up, and their living in the same apartment building in the present day.
The Boy Downstairs does a decent job of portraying post-college anxiety, even if there’s no economic component in how it portrays that anxiety. At one of Diana’s low points, her landlady –who has become a mentor figure for her – asks her how her book is going. “Uh… not great,” Diana says in a small, high voice, and when her landlady asks why not, she says, “I just haven’t really been working on it.” Making the protagonist of a movie a writer is a total cliché, but Mamet plays it with unexpected clear-eyed honesty, making “being a writer” both foundational to Diana’s sense of self and a vague childhood aspiration that has become yet another expectation when expectations are already weighing her down. The day her father meets Ben, he warns her not to get tied into something when she should be focusing on her writing. It’s a film about how we cannot predict what we will regret, cannot know for certain which are the commitments that tie us down, lock us in place, and which are the commitments that give our lives meaning.
But the thing that sticks with me about The Boy Downstairs – the reason I’m still thinking about this film almost no-one but me saw – is how its characters talk, because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film. They talk just like me.
Critics often describe film dialogue as “stylised” or “naturalistic”, but almost all dialogue is stylised to a degree, just by virtue of being written. Movie characters are quicker with a witty rejoinder and, when the moment calls for it, more emotionally articulate than their real-life counterparts. They don’t go on tangents that don’t go anywhere or mean anything, or repeat themselves, or just completely forget what they were going to say, and if they do, it’s supposed to tell us something about them. Everything a character in a film says is, by definition, purposeful, because someone decided to write it, and – even if a line was improvised by an actor – someone decided not to edit it out. “Naturalistic” is just another kind of stylisation.
Which is why the specificity of The Boy Downstairs’s naturalism impresses me so much. All films, at a fundamental level, are influenced by the conventions of the medium: growing up on a steady diet of film and television means the basic conventions of editing – the Kuleshov Effect, the 180-degree rule, establishing shots and flashbacks and montages – are so ingrained in all our brains that we’re not even consciously aware of them. That applies to filmmakers, too, including screenwriters. The reference point for making a film is, more often than not, other films, and if not, then books and paintings and photographs. Even if a filmmaker draws from their own life, it’s from their memory, not the events themselves, creating meaning and narrative where none exists. If I say a film felt, to me, like some period of my life, I really mean it feels like how I imagine it to have been. Half memory, half dream.
So the kind of naturalistic dialogue you hear in films so often sounds like the dialogue in other naturalistic films. But The Boy Downstairs doesn’t sound like that. It sounds so much like how I talk that I felt self-conscious speaking for the rest of the day after seeing it. It’s hard to describe how, exactly – a certain cadence, a certain willingness to go along with a bit, an off-the-cuff kind of joking that’s not really looking for a laugh so much as playing a game. “I think you’re going to make it,” Ben says when Diana has to get stitches, “I can’t be sure, but things are looking good… I’m going to go with, like, 80. He seems to be a real doctor.”
It uses this way of talking to build its central romance. Talking, the film seems to think, is a kind of intimacy, and in a way that’s not depicted on screen as often as you’d expect. Physical intimacy can be conveyed in dozens of ways, but talking-as-intimacy tends to be portrayed in big, romantic speeches about your feelings. That can be great, but on its own it can be weirdly hollow: like, sure, you’d die for each other, but are you even friends? All the great romcoms develop intimacy through other kinds of talking – Harry and Sally watching Casablanca over the phone, or the couples in classic screwball comedies keeping up with each other’s lightning-fast pace – but not with the hyper-naturalism of The Boy Downstairs. The rhythm of Ben and Diana’s dialogue is so familiar to me, it doesn’t feel like a cinematic shorthand to conveying intimacy but an act of intimacy itself.
One of the first scenes in the film is of Meg showing Diana the apartment she will end up renting. Meg tells her that the landlady is fussy about who she rents to, and Diana says, “Do you think that it’s an issue that I’m on parole?” The joke doesn’t register with Meg at all, and when Diana explains she was joking, Meg barely reacts then quickly moves on.
Sometimes when characters crack jokes in movies, there’s a sort of aggression to it, almost enforcing a gap between performer and audience in what is supposed to be a conversation between equals. But this kind of joking is an invitation to play together: the desired response is not primarily a laugh, but a continuation, picking up the baton and running with it. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking of imaginative play as something only children do – and something only children benefit from – but adults do it too. Yet because this kind of play is outside of the bounds of professionalism or polite dinner conversation, it always feels like a kind of secret language that only you and your friends know, both a measure of and a vehicle for your closeness. Diana doesn’t know Meg, but she’s friends with her best friend, so she invites her to play; it’s an invitation to which Meg is deaf.
Later in the film, when we see Ben and Diana meet for the first time, they both hear the invitation. They’re sitting inside an art installation, which is basically a very small room with a disco ball, and they immediately find their rhythm:
DIANA: Are we in a ’70s fever dream? Is that what… like, did we accidentally do acid?
BEN: Oh, I’m on acid.
DIANA: You are?
DIANA: Oh, good, OK, so I’m not alone.
BEN: Do you want to get dinner maybe, like, before the acid wears off? It’ll be, like, crazy.
DIANA: Yeah, let’s get dinner.
This is how you know who should end up together: Diana and Ben talk the same way. Meg, Ben’s new girlfriend, does not. Even as things are awkward and strained in the present-day story, Diana and Ben still talk this way with each other, fall back into well-worn linguistic paths. They go for dinner, and after Diana has a long exchange with the waiter about whether they have lemons, Ben immediately says, “I wonder if they have lemons. I wanted to ask him.” Diana agrees: “You should have asked.”
The Boy Downstairs has one big romantic speech. “I thought that if I ended it, that it would be less painful later on,” Diana explains, “But it wasn’t.” She tells him that she told herself she just wanted to be his friend, but that really, she thinks about him all the time, and she doesn’t know if they’d get back together forever or end up breaking up again, but she’s pretty sure that she’s in love with him. But that isn’t the getting-back-together moment. That comes later: Ben’s moved out, but he comes back to their old building to pick up some post, and Diana meets him on the doorstep. He explains he was collecting the post, then, in the silence, makes a decision: “It’s actually, uh –” and you can hear his hesitation – “warrants for my arrest.”
It’s an invitation, and Diana takes it. They do a whole bit about him moving to Mexico.
And that’s how you know they’re going to end up together.