Breaking Upwards might be The Freebie’s East-Coast slightly more abrasive cousin. Where everyone says they look so much alike, and yet one of them ends up going to med school and delivering the First Family’s first in-office in-utero, whereas the other one manages a Sonic and spends weekends huffing glue while playing online poker. At a backyard barbecue holding beers, they’re both lots of fun, great stories, couple good laughs, maybe a fight or two. But beyond that, they’re two totally different animals. Such is the case with Tisch wunderkind Daryl Wein’s first narrative feature, a romantic indie about a hipster couple — yoga classes, matching bike helmets, art gallery frequenters — who decide the only way to fix their stagnating relationship is by taking a few days a week off from each other. When the young lovers are coupled up — fighting, fucking, or funning — the film is terrific, with a spicy wit and a sinister, twisted freshness in their barbed catfighting and bitching. The premise is very simple, and unlike Katie Aselton who just let her characters be with confidence in their naturalism, Wein feels the need to pepper the hell out of his story with an overabundance of quirk. It steals focus, and by the time the payoff comes around, it’s blurred itself into a completely different movie.
Daryl and Zoe, played respectively by co-authors Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones (who share credit with Peter Duchan), a New York couple in the midst of a multi-year relationship are starting to feel the strain. During sex, Zoe tells Daryl to hurry up and cum because she’s supposed to go visit her mother soon. Both artists — Daryl a journalist/writer, Zoe a struggling actress — they immediately decide to experiment by spending time apart. At first it works, they find growth as individuals, but immediately it devolves into jealousy and bitterness. First creeps in the perception of dating others, and then the actual dating, and then sexing begins. The two neurotic Nuyawkers are heavily steeped in self-loathing and insecurity, and it flares up in fireworks when they clash. Everyone’s families weigh in about how stupid they are, how ridiculously immature the situation is, and it ends surprisingly trite for what amounts to a homemade indie flick.
If Breaking Upwards just focused on Daryl and Zoe, it would have been a much stronger film. But much of the film deals with the reaction of Daryl and Zoe’s families. Daryl’s father (Peter Friedman) is a lug who kind of shrugs and chuckles everything off. Daryl’s mother (Julie White, Sam Witwicky’s mom from Transformers) is a shrill brute who berates and insults her son. Zoe’s mother (Andrea Martin) is a freethinking divorcee, who smokes pot with them and constantly complains about how she can’t find a swinging guy. Oh, and Daryl’s brother is gay, because why not. Zoe’s theatre compadres become an element, as does Daryl’s mentor. Judaism is draped over the entire project like a shroud, with Daryl meeting a young girl who catches his fancy (Olivia Thirlby, slumming for the guy who helped her get an acting start), and the entire film culminating at Seder. Instead of adding depth and layers to the story, it just feels like a broth that blands everything. I can’t really blame Wein because his supporting cast is terrific. Particularly the parents, and especially Julie White.
The interplay between Wein and Lister Jones almost makes the film worth watching. Zoe Lister Jones is a hateful fireplug, spewing scathing and scorn for everything around her. She’s a complete hellcat, and a pleasure to watch. Daryl Wein is kind of a cross between a weiner and a Mormon. He’s kind of milquetoasts about whining and chastising everyone, and you don’t blame Zoe for wanting out. Yet, the film feels like it chooses sides, tipping the scales in favor of Daryl, which is hard to buy. Breaking Upwards isn’t a terrible film, but it just doesn’t pack the punch it should. And after watching The Freebie — which also played SXSW — it feels like a poor, miserable shade of that excellent project.