The Tribeca Film Festival ended on Sunday and, once again, proves what a great outlet for women-made films it is. “The Boy Downstairs,” by newcomer Sophie Brooks, was one of those entertaining and smart films. I had the pleasure of speaking with Brooks about her Tribeca, and feature film debut, as both writer and director.
Brooks is a graduate of the NYU Tisch School and her love for the city where she learned her craft is apparent in “The Boy Downstairs,” a romantic “Woody Allen-esque” comedy in the tradition of “Annie Hall.” Not surprisingly, Brooks cites Allen as an early influence.
In “Boy” a young woman named “Diana” (Zosia Mamet of “Girls”) returns to New York City after some time abroad. She moves into a brownstone apartment not far from the wedding gown shop where she works. Although she sells dresses by day she spends her nights pursuing a writing career. Acclimating her into her new surroundings are her best friend “Gabby” (Diana Irvine) and her new landlord “Amy” (Deirdre O’Connell). Complicating matters is the realization that she unknowingly has moved into the same building as her ex-boyfriend “Ben” (Matthew Shear). Of course, like most films, the journey to Brooks’s Tribeca success has an interesting history. She came up with the film’s premise several years ago after suffering an attack of appendicitis. “I thought, what if when I was struck with my attack, the only person to help me was my ex-boyfriend.” The physical pain of appendicitis inspired the emotional pain of a previous relationship.
The awkwardness of being in close proximity to a former lover, as well as remaining friends with one, is obviously a relatable subject that instantly engages the audience. A story void of the usual clichés doesn’t hurt and Brooks does an excellent job of avoiding the pitfalls that many people who attempt the romantic comedy genre (especially in the city where Woody Allen once courted Diane Keaton) fall into.
“I knew when I was writing the script that I would be directing it.” Her script flows like the gentle boat ride her main characters take at the lake in Parkside Brooklyn. She smartly distinguishes her past flashbacks and present scenes without hitting you over the head with title cards, wavy images or cheesy music. When asked about the structure of her screenplay Brooks said, “I got all my bad ideas out in the first draft.” Certain aspects of the story are left open-ended, which is an interesting formula that allows the viewer to use their own imagination as to how certain events play out.
When asked what genre she prefers, comedy or drama, Brooks said, comedy. The conversation veered off into comparisons of writing and directing. “With writing, you don’t have to show your script to anyone until you’re ready, when directing, there is always a feeling of self-doubt.”
As far as the potential controversy of the title, “Female Director,” as opposed to just “Director,” Brooks said “it doesn’t bother me.” In fact, when asked if her film would have looked different if directed by a man she said, shrewdly, “yes, but it would also look different if another woman directed it.” After hearing the applause after her screening, I asked if it made her appendicitis worth it. Brooks quickly answered “No! But it gave it a silver lining.”
Brooks stated to Tribeca “I hope to make films that portray how women and relationships can be challenging and honest and funny and sad all at the same time.” She is currently working on another film, and, if “The Boy Downstairs” is any indication, as to her talent, I predict that it, too, will be a success. Brooks is not only a gifted filmmaker but also quick on her feet, and even though she doesn’t mind the title “female,” here’s raising my hand in salute to one of today’s best “directors.”
Rudy Cecera covers the Tribeca Festival for Screen Comment (@RudyCecera) and is our regular film critic.