Rookie feature director Sophie Brooks can get away with a few missteps in The Boy Downstairs because she understands one basic truth: Love turns rational, intelligent adults into blithering idiots.
In this case, an insecure New York writer named Diana (Zosia Mamet, Girls) finds herself attracted to a friendly, considerate fellow named Ben (Matthew Shear). Ben is interested in her enough to notice what she doesn’t eat on a pizza.
Considering all the lousy matches out there, even in a city of millions, Ben seems like a reasonable catch. Diana, however, is terrified of commitment. Some of her trepidation is understandable.
In the first half of the film, Diana prepares to move to London, and in the other, she returns to the Big Apple. What’s the point of forming an emotional bond if she’s unlikely to see him after her time in the U.K.?
“Love turns rational, intelligent adults into blithering idiots…”
She also has insecurities that might crush weaker individuals. In many films, characters tell the protagonist he or she is a wonderful writer even if the audience never gets to find out for themselves. In Diana’s case, it’s probably true that she has literary talent because she throws out biting zingers whenever she’s nervous. While her quips are indeed funny, she still has difficulty reading her potential audience.
“It’s usually a bad idea to tell a realtor that you’re a little late for an appointment because you’ve just been paroled for murder.”
Most of her output has been primarily short stories, and she toils in a bridal shop because she approaches her tales with a sense of self-flagellation that the most fanatical of monks wouldn’t have. A quick glance at a draft of her latest tale on the screen reveals half a dozen paragraphs with countless popup corrections. All of the notes were written by her.
Let’s give credit to Brooks. She may be the only feature director who can get an effective gag from a word processor’s screen capture. Like Christopher Nolan before her, Brooks abandons chronological order in her narrative, and for the most part, it works. In the flashbacks, Shear wears contacts, and after Diana’s return, he has glasses. It’s a simple device, but it keeps the story from slipping into confusion.
With a tight New York real estate market, it’s believable that Diana would inadvertently move into Ben’s building. It’s hard to be a stalker when finding any place to live in the city is prohibitively expensive.
Curiously, Diana is in denial over her obsession with Ben. She has a habit of lingering outside his window, even when it’s become obvious he’s seeing someone else. Brooks’ flashback-heavy structure serves the story well because it puts the audience into Diana’s cluttered head. She may have broken up with him, but mentally she’s clearly unable to leave him.
“Brooks may be about the only feature director who can get an effective gag from a screen capture from a word processor…”
Solid casting helps make Diana’s struggles easier to believe. Mamet can easily play goofy, but she also projects just enough brainpower to make Diana’s blunders seem sympathetic instead of stupid. That’s a reasonable expectation for the daughter of writer-director David Mamet and actor Lindsay Crouse. If she keeps giving performances like this one, she’ll leave a mark of her own outside her formidable lineage.
Ben is a salt-of-the-earth fellow, but Shear’s still manages to make him feel real. He glances at Diana longingly, even when common sense or the fact that he has a girlfriend tells him it’s a bad idea.
Like a lot of recent films, The Boy Next Door features a pointless montage where Brooks rehashes footage we’ve already seen that doesn’t move the story forward. We already know Diana can’t escape her memories.
Then again, after having gorged on movies overstuffed with eye-candy, it’s refreshing to discover that cinema’s most captivating images involve a couple unable to stop staring into each other’s eyes.
The Boy Downstairs (2017) Directed by Sophie Brooks. Written by Sophie Brooks. Starring Zosia Mamet, Matthew Shear, Deirdre O’Connell, Sarah Ramos, Diana Irvine, Arliss Howard, Deborah Offner, David Wohl
7 out of 10