DWIFF Discovery: Breaking Upwards
The Detroit Windsor International Film Festival is here, and already there have been some truly top-notch discoveries. First, Breaking Upwards:
We’ve all been through it before—the long-term relationship gone stale, the inability to let go, the struggle of the fear of being alone versus the continued misery of staying in a relationship that has passed its expiration date…we all know the drill. It is a painful and confusing fact of life for almost all twenty-somethings—and a romantic phenomenon almost exclusive to that age bracket.
Being in your mid-twenties is a confusing enough time in your life: your career has yet to solidify itself, you’re not entirely sure who you are or who you want to be; you’re using your parents as your role models and life guides though you’re slowly starting to realize that that they aren’t the paragons of maturity and smart decision-making you once thought they were; you’re still trying to figure out the Big Things in life (convinced that you can figure out the Big Things, anyway)…it is a tumultuous time under the best of circumstances. Throw in a four-year relationship at its breaking point for good measure, and what you’ve got is, well, a pretty typical life for a 25-year-old.
Or what you’ve got is Breaking Upwards, the narrative feature film debut of director/writer/actor/producer/editor Daryl Wein. What started as an experiment between him and his real-life long-time girlfriend, Zoe Lister-Jones, became fodder for an effortlessly clever and heartbreakingly true-to-life film which tracks the fictionalized couple Daryl and Zoe through one year of jealous rages, immature tantrums, hypocritical tirades, lies, deception, confusion, irritation, impatience, passive-aggressive power-struggles…in other words, a pretty typical relationship for a 25-year-old.
Daryl and Zoe, realizing that their relationship has hit the proverbial wall, decide to make their break-up an experiment. They realize that while they can’t live with each other, they also can’t live without each other (or so they think: relationships tend to be a little more life-or-death dramatic for the twenty-something set). Instead of breaking up, they decide to take “breaks” in order to slowly wean themselves off of each other until they finally feel comfortable enough to fully break up. Certain days they aren’t allowed to speak, and they set parameters on their behavior which eventually leads to them being allowed to date (and sleep with) other people.
If it sounds like a co-dependent meltdown waiting to happen, then you’ve clearly been through something like this before. This little experiment is wrought with raw insecurity, vulnerability, and self-aggrandizement. While the one thing these two characters need is space away from each other, it is to each other that they both keep turning back (when their faith and trust in their own parental models is shaken by what they assume, in a way that only the arrogance of youth can, is a lifetime of poor decisions that led to long-term unhappiness) for guidance and support through their own break-up. It is hard to tell whether what they have is love or co-dependency, though so often one is easily mistaken for the other.
Yeah, I’ve been there. A few times. More than I care to admit. I think we all have, and I think the real question here is at what point are you healthy enough to be in a relationship that is no longer co-dependent? Or perhaps, at what point do you become mature enough to realize that all relationships become comfortable and worn-in eventually—that in time, the passionate lust and mystery fades—and that what seems “stifling” at age 25 might be marital bliss at age 50?
What I love about this film is that it doesn’t really try to answer these questions. Despite being an incredibly smart, savvy, articulate exploration of twenty-somethings in crisis, it never really takes itself so seriously as to act like it has all the answers (a fault of many other films by/about twenty-somethings). In its exploration of emotional immaturity, the film is incredibly sympathetic and mature. It is raw, and it is real—a romantic comedy for every relationship that hasn’t had a happy ending. It is not a symptom of its Gen X, Gen Y, or Gen-whateverness; it is just a simple story about real people experiencing real hurt, and having to suffer the pains of youth and growing up (via breaking up).
Casting themselves in the roles of the main characters based on their own experiences, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones deliver equally remarkable, tender, real performances that never once seem stilted, scripted, or staged. The dialogue is snappy and witty, almost rapid-fire in a way that is less self-important Linklater and more irreverent Seth Rogen. The actors feel entirely natural, which struck me as an impressive feat considering that the leads are relative unknowns and are reenacting in a way that seems almost masochistic their own relationship’s end. Expertly shot, scripted, and edited, this humble indie project could just as easily be the product of a team with decades more collective experience…but it probably could not have approached the delicate emotional vulnerability, the loneliness, the youthful authenticity of Wein and Lister-Jones.
Examining the many varied power-struggles experienced by people in their twenties—within the confines of family, work, relationships, and the gender double-bind—while also being a very real portrait of very flawed people, Breaking Upwards is perhaps this century’s most poignant and realistic look at relationships, done with an unflinching yet compassionate eye. This is one of the best romantic comedies I have ever seen, even moreso for the fact that the sticky-sweet happy ending so common to the genre was shunned in favor of an ending that a whole lot more real people can actually relate to.
Wein could very well be on his way to becoming the next great auteur, among the ranks of Robert Altman and Woody Allen. I look forward to seeing what is next from him, as well as his luminescently-eyed, f-bomb-dropping ex-girlfriend Zoe Lister-Jones, without whose articulate and sensitive performance the film wouldn’t have been the same.