Mamet ended “Girls” as the voice of reason: Her garrulous Shoshanna declared it time to move on from the “exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring” dynamic that had seized the central characters’ relationships. She begins “The Boy Downstairs” as the voice rattling around her own head: Her drifting Diana stands shivering outside a New York apartment building, returning a sweater to an ex-boyfriend.
Even though she’s anxious about moving forward without the security that multiple seasons of television provide, Mamet is off to a fine start. “The Boy Downstairs,” written and directed by newcomer Sophie Brooks, is a romantic comedy about the aftermath of first love. Because Diana is a creative type ambling through New York in her 20s, the movie can seem one with the “Girls” universe. But Mamet insists it’s a world removed ― she took the role because Brooks’ script massaged the gender roles of a “classic setup.”
“We fall in love sometimes when we’re younger in this way that feels so epic and all-encompassing, but you’re sort of too young to experience the true depth that love as an adult is,” Mamet said, reflecting on her character’s experiences. “And when you have that and you might not be ready for it, I think it’s really paralyzing to some humans. I think Sophie wrote this character who just isn’t ready for what all of that is.”
Diana has just returned to New York after a creative stint in London. A writer who can’t find a spark upon moving home, Diana is working at a bridal boutique and asking her best friend (Diana Irvine) for leads on finding an apartment. She quickly lands a unit in a Manhattan brownstone where, conveniently, the ex-boyfriend (Matthew Shear) she left three years earlier resides. Bumbling encounters and self-conscious exchanges conjure up bittersweet memories of their time together, depicted in flashbacks. Amid professional aimlessness, Diana realizes she still isn’t over this nice, vulnerable guy whose commitment once frightened her.
That’s where “The Boy Downstairs” diverges most from “Girls”: It chronicles the evolution of a single relationship and its emotional tolls, and its primary male character is sensitive and approachable. “Those are the types of guys I dated,” Brooks said. “I like nice guys. I’m not trying to date a fratty douche” ― or a “frouche,” per Mamet’s abbreviation.
For the record, Mamet liked the “Girls” series finale, even though Shoshanna’s send-off came in the penultimate episode. “As an observer, I thought it was amazing, but as a human who was on the show for six years, I have lots of emotions about it,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to watch the last episode of something you spent so much time on.”
Even if Mamet wants to avoid parallels between “Boy Downstairs” and “Girls,” the movie functions as a nice bookend for the show. It lets the 29-year-old actress shine, propelling her toward more left-of-center roles. She recently wrapped “Under the Silver Lake,” a crime noir from “It Follows” director David Robert Mitchell, and she is set to play Patti Smith in a biopic about iconoclastic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. As her career progresses, she says she has time to be “picky” about jobs.
“I think we’re in this interesting place and time in our industry, and I think the scales are still quite uneven when it comes to truly well-rounded characters for women, I think particularly for people of my age,” she said. “I’m often sent scripts where I say the female role is sort of like a piece of furniture. You need to have a couch in the room, so she’s there, but that’s kind of the purpose she serves, which is one of the reasons I was so, so drawn to Sophie’s script. Not only was this an amazing opportunity to play a leading role, but I felt like Sophie was really saying something with the story that she was telling. It was very multi-dimensional, and that’s rare, sadly.”
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