Relationships, whether platonic, romantic, or familial, are always going to be tested. Some last forever, even through the challenges, while others are cut short by complications. Some people stay in an unhealthy relationship forever, while on other occasions, both parties go their separate ways in a relatively amicable, mutually respectful manner. There is no specific formula to consistently balance this equation, rather, it is a distinct combination of internal and external elements that change the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. From director Scott Dow, with a screenplay written by Dev Wadhwa, Breaking Them Up takes a look at the fluidity of human relationships from the perspective of a young 15-year-old kid, Damien (Jakob Wedel), and his surrounding environment.
Damien and his best friend, Erin (Tess Aubert), have carved out quite the niche in their freshman class. If one of their peers has a crush on a schoolmate, they come to Damien and Erin for assistance in the matchmaking process. As they say, they cannot directly make someone like someone else, but they can “create opportunities.” Yes, this whole concept is obviously influenced by the 2005 Andy Tennant-directed romantic comedy starring Will Smith, Hitch and, for good measure, that film is even namedropped in an early scene in Breaking Them Up. Even as Damien thinks he has a grasp on the intricacies of emotional relationships, this only-child still struggles to understand why his parents’ marriage is in shambles. His father, Phil (Stephen Schneider), and mother, Laurie (Kelen Coleman), argue nonstop, have little common personal interests, and barely spend time with one another. Of course, this negative energy in the household affects Damien as well, and an idea strikes him: perhaps he can enlist the help of Erin to use their unique skillset and find more suitable relationships for Phil and Laurie, respectively, simultaneously “breaking them up,” whilst also ensuring that both of his parents are not alone. If all goes to plan, the whole family would benefit in one form or another. Granted, these things never go to plan in movies like this, which provides the filmmaker an opportunity to play around in the sandbox of this comedic subgenre. Scott Dow had many models of other films to emulate, which could have resulted in a stale, predictable romp that had been played out time and time again in similar stories. Thankfully, this is not the case with Breaking Them Up, which finds ways to surprise the viewer with its unexpected maturity and authenticity.
There is a careful sensitivity that is paid to the plot point of marital problems and how they can impact the rest of a family unit outside of that central partnership. Sure, the “rest of the family unit” here only includes a single person, Damien, but that does not make the issue any less troublesome as a whole. Damien’s life is altered by his parents’ relationship problems, and in turn, his relationships with his best friends and potential romantic interests are damaged. A lot of credit to the film’s particular effectiveness here goes to Dev Wadhwa’s script, which seeks out honesty in its characters and narrative. The writing understands the subjects and issues at the heart of the story and how it is looking to challenge the perspectives of the fictional characters within the film as well as the audiences watching it unfold on screen. Questions are asked about the dynamic nature of love, the boundaries of friendship, and the power of fleeting moments that define lives for years to come. The “answers” to these questions in Breaking Them Up are not meant to be universally applicable to the conditions of all relationships, but the invitation to observe and participate in this conversation with the film is easy to accept.
In addition to the Hitch parallels, there are a handful of other meta references in Breaking Them Up that make it apparent that the filmmakers are also passionate fans of cinema as audience members themselves. Terrence Malick, specifically, is mentioned or alluded to on multiple occasions, Lupita Nyong’o gets a hat tip, and there are even a couple jokes at the expense of Vin Diesel. I am not entirely sure how much of this comes from Scott Dow as the director or Dev Wadhwa as the screenwriter, but even within the context of this film, these glimpses into their personalities as storytellers do not exactly feel like aspects that were shoehorned in. Rather, they are integrated in a way that provide depth to the thematic development in Breaking Them Up. Although some casual viewers may not fully recognize the significance of each reference, the target audience for these anecdotes will appreciate them.
Credit is also due to director of photography Dakota Adney and editor Amber Bansak. Working with a relatively low budget and limited time and resources, this film still manages to construct an energized atmosphere and look. Certain camera zooms and shifts are akin to the methods used by Stephen Soderbergh in the Ocean’s movies. In a sense, this correlation extends into the respective narratives of Breaking Them Up and Ocean’s. While the latter is an iconic staple in the heist genre, and the former is a relationship dramedy, there is indeed a heist element to Breaking Them Up. The processes of Damien and Erin as they fit the puzzle pieces together to “create opportunities” for relationships is comparable to a heist. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be portrayed in a cohesive pattern. A lot of this comes together (or falls apart) in the editing bay, and this is why Amber Bansak’s contributions to the production were so pivotal. The cadence of the action keeps its proper pace and hits its marks.
Seeing a story that deals with these themes of relationship drama through the eyes of a young character like Damien played by a nearly age-accurate actor like Jakob Wedel was refreshing. I do not always have a major problem with actors in their mid-20s playing high schoolers, but there is more empathy and relatability that opens up when you can imagine that the actors themselves would be experiencing similar emotional reactions in those circumstances. Of course, nothing about the exploration of relationships in Breaking Them Up is one-size-fits-all, but there are earnest efforts in the filmmaking to reach out and connect with the audience. It’s pretty easy to admire that in a film.
In select theaters October 15th, 2021.
For more information, head to the Breaking Them Up website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.