Daryl Wein’s clever “Breaking Upwards” comes knocking at the door like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, draping reality in a fictional romantic comedy about a twentysomething NYC couple named Daryl and Zoe whose relationship is coming apart.
The film stars Wein and girlfriend Zoe Lister-Jones (as Daryl and Zoe) and is based on their experience trying to build themselves a better breakup. They also wrote (with Peter Duchan), produced and, in Lister-Jones’ case, handled catering and wrote all the lyrics for the film’s original soundtrack by composer Kyle Forester.
All of which works to give “Breaking Upwards” a DIY mumblecore vibe, including its very engaging conversational style, but thanks to Wein, there is less mumble, more core from the story and the cast.
Made on less than a shoestring and mostly shot in the apartments of friends and relations, the film opens with a telling midsex moment -- he’s half-heartedly trying and she just wants it to be over, a general malaise tangled up in the sheets. Though there is conflict around every corner, it’s all very civilized as they plot out the rules of their disengagement, deciding on days off from each other and figuring out whether the relationship should be salvaged or scrapped.
The film takes its time meandering through the necessary transitions from the less consequential -- when to update the Facebook status -- to the significant, like can they have sex with someone else. And there’s Daryl’s move back in with his parents, played by Julie White (probably best known now as Sam’s quirky mom in “Transformers”) and veteran character actor Peter Friedman (“The Savages”), with all the baggage that implies.
But really, the overriding question remains, is a good breakup possible? The answer seems to be a qualified yes. Certainly, Wein and Lister-Jones, who’s racked up a bunch of credits with smaller roles in larger films, including “State of Play” with Russell Crowe, are enjoyable to watch as they create their single selves: Zoe, an actress just cast in an off-Broadway production, and Daryl, toggling between a baby-sitting gig and making short films on his computer.
Both on-screen and off-, they are living that young New Yorker life on the artist fringes sans most of the angst-ridden self-importance that usually comes with the territory. And that is perhaps the neatest trick pulled off by the filmmaker, who manages to avoid the central problem of such autobiographical filmmaking by keeping narcissism at bay.
In this, Wein is helped by bringing the sort of objectivity found in his earlier documentary, 2008’s “Sex Positive,” about gay S&M safe-sex activist Richard Berkowitz. Meanwhile, director of photography Alex Bergman’s style creates a tangible sense of place -- wide shots, for example, following Zoe and Daryl biking through the streets of the city, creating breathing room just when it’s needed.
Most of the cast has roots in the theater, and some of the set pieces have a quality of being played out on a stage, particularly a Passover Seder that brings Zoe’s and Daryl’s families together, with liberation the main course in more than just the traditional ways.
Just as that dinner is filled with meat, potatoes and portent, there are metaphors around for the finding. But Wein’s is a soft touch, nothing too heavy-handed, which makes “Breaking Upwards” a breakup worth going through.