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.