For anyone who has let New York City serve as the battleground for their romantic dealings, Breaking Upwards is particularly apt. Based on the real-life experience of director Daryl Wein and actress Zoe Lister-Jones, the film follows the two as they attempt to deconstruct their relationship in the hopes of saving it. Meditating on the question of what it means to love someone but to no longer be in love, Breaking Upwards takes a surprisingly fresh look at the painful back and forth that accompanies the end of a long relationship.
Countless romantic comedies, sitcoms, and dramas have taken ‘the breakup’ as their subject matter, to varying degrees of success. However, very few have pared the subject down to its barest form and asked quite simply: how do you do this? The beauty of Breaking Upwards is in both the smallness of its subject matter and its willingness to not shy away from the more difficult and loathsome emotions that accompany any significant breakup.
The film begins with a mundane sex scene between Daryl (Daryl Wein) and Zoe (Zoe Lister-Jones), giving way to their somewhat oppressive morning routine: sharing the bathroom, wordlessly making breakfast, and sitting at the table eating — entirely uninterested in the other’s presence. As they start to discuss their future together and acknowledge that the status quo has become rather bleak, they devise a complicated plan that strikes a balance between staying together and breaking up: taking days off. According to the rules of ‘days off,’ they are forbidden to call or see each other on ‘off days,’ but are to resume their relationship as normal on ‘on days.’
Daryl and Zoe encounter the expected problems: Can you sleep with other people on days off? What happens if you feel that you need to talk to the other person? What do you do if you have other plans on a an ‘on’ day? And so forth. Shortly after the start of taking days off, Zoe sleeps with her acting partner, Turner, whom Daryl has a notable dislike for. Promptly after putting on his clothes, Turner grabs two beers and heads out the door, leaving Zoe devastated and suddenly needy for Daryl’s attention. Experiencing the inevitable ‘aha’ moment, Zoe realizes all of the things she took for granted in Daryl and convinces him that they should get back together. Though the turn of events is predictable, Wein, as director, lingers in the significance of the moment and the haphazard way that we conflate our own personal needs and search for fulfillment with actual feelings of love.
As viewers, we watch as Daryl and Zoe experience both the thrill and misery of meeting new people, as well as their inability to evaluate their feelings for one another, without reacting to the particularity of their interactions with others. Rather than produce a generic film about falling in and out of love, Wein, along with writers Lister-Jones and Peter Duchan, look at the specific nature of relationships today. Contemplating what impact location, careers, and the obsession with the way one is perceived have on two people trying to relate and understand one another, the film raises a series of questions that many people avoid asking in their own relationships. How do you know when a relationship is simply ‘comfortable’? How do you maintain the same love for someone at a time when you and your surroundings are constantly changing? And most importantly: how do you know when all that is keeping you together is the sheer fact that you don’t spend any time apart?
Breaking Upwards is not good because it is revolutionary or groundbreaking; it succeeds because it looks closely at a topic that is often addressed broadly and generically, acknowledging the selfishness, unhappiness, and pain that are inevitable in both making a relationship work and in realizing that it is irreparable. Far from being an anti-romance, the film still manages to reflect on the importance of independence and the impossibility of growing up before you first learn how to be alone.