The Breaker Upperers * 2018 * Not Rated- Probably PG-13 for Language, Nudity and Adult Situations * 82 Minutes
😸😸😸😸🌑 Rated 4/5 Happy Lap Cats
As the poster above says, 6 different times, The Breaker Upperers is hilarious. It is, first and foremost, a wacky comedy that’s not afraid to go for the laugh in whatever situation it finds itself in, whether that’s with a newly pregnant woman becoming nauseated while sharing the news with a friend, or engaging in drunken karaoke on a party bus.
Actually, those situations are likely to end the same way, so maybe that wasn’t the example of opposites I was looking for.
The great thing about this film is that, while it’s a wacky, screwball, sort of romantic, sort of musical, sort of dark, comedy, it’s also real. It’s the kind of female-oriented film I’ve been looking for on Netflix, as I’ve watched their romantic comedies pile up over the last year, almost all so laden with stereotypes and misogyny that I can barely manage to finish one viewing. The two female characters at the center of this film are just people, living their lives, not heroes, not villains, not stereotypes, and not trying to be any of those things. So are the rest of the characters.
The Breaker Upperers was written, directed by and stars Madeleine Sami and Jackie van Beek, two multi-talented women from New Zealand, who have been friends for many years in real life. In the film, they play Mel and Jen, who have also been friends for many years. Mel and Jen own and operate their own business, the titular Breaker Upperers, who clients hire to do the dirty work of ending a relationship when they can’t or don’t want to do it themselves.
They’ve found a niche market for their business, and it works, providing a personal service that people don’t like to do for themselves, like many service-oriented businesses. It doesn’t involve selling themselves in any exploitative way that they ultimately can’t live with, unlike some of the service-oriented businesses women end up in.
That is until one day, one of the recipients of their service confronts them with the results of their actions, and they face the reality of their business.
Unlike most, I don’t have a problem with the concept of a business that helps you with a break up. The break up is going to happen anyway, so I look at it this way- what’s worse: Someone ghosting and never being heard from again, leaving his former partner to worry and eventually figure out he’s not coming back, or the partner ghosting, but hiring someone to tell his partner right away that they’ll never see him again?
In a perfect world, we’d all be brave and honest enough to break up cleanly and face to face, but in this world, that doesn’t happen much. A break up service could actually help smooth over some potentially terrible break ups, if done with compassion.
But the Breaker Upperers are a bit hard-hearted about the break ups, having started the business after their own tough break ups, and provide multiple options for the break up, from a simple in-person, truthful notification to an elaborate in-person faux cheating or pregnancy scheme. Jen and Mel, who are ages 40 and 36, respectively, have been doing this for a while and have their scenarios, costumes, and lines down to a science. They get in, they get out, they don’t get involved. They never even had to have a formal rule about it.
They are best friends, and, while neither is in a relationship, they haven’t given up on dating. But it’s clear that their most enduring, meaningful relationship is with each other, and they have the handmade friendship bracelets to prove it. Mel is bi, which is treated as just another, routine aspect of her character in the story, as it is with all of the queer characters, of which there are several. In Mel’s case, her sexuality confuses Jen’s perpetually hazy mother about their relationship, leading to one of those hilarious sequences the film poster refers to. I know I’m always going to look at Ajax a bit cautiously after this.
The film mines the business, a crisis in the friendship, the entertaining supporting characters, and a little bit of romance, for both plot and humor. The first two-thirds of the film are a rollicking good time, then the tone settles a bit, in order to work out the crises set up in the earlier parts of the film, and to let the emotional beats land unencumbered.
That’s not to say the film becomes maudlin or heavy. It stays relatively light-hearted, but the characters are allowed to be real human beings, with the full range of human emotions, and the film sticks with them as they work their way through their emotions and toward solutions and more schemes, as fictional characters are wont to do.
I found the solutions and schemes charming, but I am a fan of old-fashioned rom-coms, musicals, Jane Austen, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. This film felt to me like a very, very modern version of a lost Jane Austen work. Like her work, and rom-coms up until the last decade or two, the story is based on the characters and their foibles. The narrative gaze is observant and honest, but not harsh.
We follow the characters through their everyday lives, during a period that turns out to be a pivotal one in determining the course they’ll follow in the next phase of their lives, but they don’t know at the time that they’re going through anything but an ordinary time. It’s recognizable and relatable for everyone, and all the funnier, and more poignant, for it.
Music is an important part of the story, and several songs are included, built into the flow of the film in clever ways. It’s not a musical. No one ever bursts into an original song in the middle of a conversation. But recorded music is part of their lives and has meaning for them, and they use it to express various sentiments. The soundtrack is heavy on Celine Dion and hip hop, which works better than it sounds like it should. The song A Love Song, which plays at the end of the film, is by Ladyhawke, who is married to creator Madeleine Sami.
The Breaker Upperers was executive produced by Taika Waititi, director of Thor: Ragnarok and What We Do in the Shadows, who has collaborated with Jackie van Beek before. Their shared New Zealand sensibilities come through in the humor and characters.
In addition to being written and directed by two women, the film had a female cinematographer, Ginny Loane, and two out of the three producers were women, Ainsley Gardiner and Georgina Conder. In addition, 60% of the behind the camera team was female. Given the emphasis on women in the cast and the story, this has to be one of the most women-friendly, feminist fims of the year, if not the decade.
Jemaine Clement, of Legion and Flight of the Concords, makes a brief but memorable appearance. James Rolleston plays Jordan, a young client, while Celia Pacquola as Anna and Ana Scotney as Sepa play two of recipients of the Breaker Upperers’ services. All three are scene stealers and amazing, but Ana Scotney and her crew just about steal the whole film. Sepa’s crew is comprised of Te Keepa Aria, Amanaki Prescott, Moe Laga, Hillary Samuela, and Darren Taniue. Rima Te Wiata plays Jen’s mom, Shona, who’s a very non-traditional mother.
The film is a little rough around the edges at times. The business-related humor is milked repetitively, while the emotional beats could flow more smoothly. The camera work is jarring at times. And I wouldn’t have minded seeing all of the characters fleshed out a bit more.
It’s a tightly written film, at 82 minutes. Perhaps the indie budget didn’t allow for more time. But I’d love to see a version that takes a little more time with each subplot, or gives one or two of the underserved characters more of their own story. Maybe when it becomes a TV series. 😘
These are all small complaints, compared to how enjoyable the film is overall, and, in some ways, the roughness is part of its charm. It’s not often I find something fun, with a good story, from a female perspective, that feels like a story about women I might know in real life, that isn’t about women who are victims. When I do, it’s wonderful.
Spoilers Start Here- Stop Reading If You Don’t Want to Be Spoiled!!!
I’m serious about that TV show. What We Do in the Shadows is now a TV show, premiering in March on FX in the US. There’s no reason the Break/Maker Upperers, who appeared to be doing a brisk repeat business at the end of the film, couldn’t carry an 8 or 10 episode season of shenanigans a year. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is ending. There’s an opening for a show that’s quirky and not quite a rom-com, with music, some workplace comedy and female friendships at its core.
With a heart of gold. That’s the part I didn’t want to get too far into in the spoiler-free part, that I’ll get into now. This film has heart and isn’t embarrassed about its feelings, like so many romances have been since the heyday of the 80s and 90s ended. The characters are willing to face their mistakes and flaws, and then be vulnerable to each other in order to save their relationships, rather than live in misery and cynical denial. Just like people in ultimately healthy, long-term relationships do, whether they are friends, siblings or lovers.
Even though they’re not perfect, they keep making mistakes and repeating the whole process. The movie has a hopeful ending, and the business has expanded to include the positive side of relationship trouble, the opportunity to learn and grow from mistakes and improve the relationship or find a better one. I can’t help but love it for that, because we see it so infrequently these days in films that are also realistic and aimed at grown ups.
I saw too many reviewers who were tying themselves in sexist knots to review this film, calling the ending safe, while also calling the two women nihilistic and all sorts of other melodramatically negative names because they help people break up with their significant others. You’d think they were serial killers or hit men, except I rarely even see hit men called nihilistic.
As for the safe ending, the actual romantic couple that’s formed during the film, Melon and Jordan, breaks up. Four people, Mel, Jen, Jordan and Sepa, will coparent a child. The teens are back together and will presumably eventually have partial custody of the baby. An openly bisexual woman has a baby with a man almost 20 years younger than her, who she doesn’t marry. And the film doesn’t censure her for it. And it doesn’t censure him or make him give up his life to take care of the mother and child as his dependents, as if it were the 19th century. Grandma Shona gets the happy, modern ending that she wanted, with her two girls platonically raising a baby together.
There’s nothing safe about the above paragraph.
Nobody gets punished for anything, they just grow and learn to soften their edges. They move on to the next stage of their lives, and the events of the film usher the next phase in. How is that a safe ending, in this misogynist, racist, homophobic world? It’s what happens in the real world, every day. But in our entertainment media, everyone but straight, white, adult men get punished for doing many of the things that were done in this film.
No one is overly objectified or harshly mocked, either. Sure, we all admire how pretty Jordan is with coke all over him, and there’s various characters’ interpretations of various sexy dances. But it never leaves the realm of what people actually do when they get crazy or desperate or silly, it just heightens the action some. And adds a fully choreographed dance number or two, done by people with a variety of body types and ethnicities, who stay reasonably clothed and are considered sexy, no matter who they are.
If you never have fully choreographed dance numbers show up in your life, then you need to get new friends.
But let’s move on to the fun stuff. Jordan’s obsession with RTD fizzy drinks with all the sugar says something profound about him, I’m sure of it. It’s basically Jordan in a bottle. Fun, sweet, exciting, consistent, reliable, not very nutritious, but a great accompaniment to almost anything.
I don’t understand why Sepa, Jen and company showed up at the soccer meeting dressed like Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, but I freakin’ love that movie and style, so I’m all for it. Is being a stonewashed, lacy, pink-bowed Material Girl back in style? If only I still had my pink, stone-washed denim bomber jacket.
Anna’s side of the story was so moving and relatable, but I’m glad they had her find her self-respect and ditch Mel when she discovered their friendship was based on a lie. Forgiving her eventually, as she appeared to do in the credits, is fine, since they had a real connection as friends. I also appreciated that we saw Sepa’s vulnerability, the side that she probably doesn’t show to strangers often.
In the TV show/sequel film, the Maker/Breaker Upperers can add a dating service, and they’ll be a one stop shop. They can sell lifetime memberships to clients and promise to help them navigate through every divorce and remarriage. They definitely need to hire Anna and Sepa, who’ll help expand the range of services they can make available.
Jackie Van Beek and Madeleine Sami Interview with The Cafe (embedded above)
The Guardian- The Breaker Upperers stars on the Kiwi romcom, #MeToo and why women make ‘edgier’ comedy
NZ Herald- Kiwi comedy The Breaker Upperers marks a new breed of rom-com
NZ Herald- Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami on The Breaker Upperers, the female gaze, and dealing with rejection
Wikipedia- The Breaker Upperers
Poster used courtesy of Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami.
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