Written by Gaden Sousa.
I’m going to start this review by confessing that my views towards this film may appear to be a little bit biased.
I went and saw The Breaker Upperers early as part of a Q and A screening. This meant that I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami, who wrote, directed and starred in the film. I got to watch them introduce the film and then act in the film and then come out and answer questions about the film. I then got to ask them my own question and later met them and took photos with them. I remember going home filled with energy and excitement. Filled with the creative jolt I needed. Some of that was due to meeting these two incredibly talented women who wrote, directed and starred in one of the most successful New Zealand films of the past decade, receiving international acclaim and being the highest grossing New Zealand film of the year. Most of my energy came from how wonderful the film The Breaker Upperers is.
The story follows Jen and Mel, two heartbroken heroines that have started a business that offers the service of breaking up relationships that aren’t working. They provide a range of services, ranging from singing and giving chocolates to pretending that the other party has gone missing. It’s a credit to Beek and Sami’s excellent writing and the whole cast’s impressive improvisation that a film with such a bizarre and frankly messed up premise feels grounded and real.
The best thing about this film is that it is straight up a comedy. It knows what it wants to do and that is to make you laugh. And you will. You’ll laugh a lot. My audience cackled practically from start to finish. Not every joke is going to hit you in the funny bone and make you cry but there will be some that will make you explode with uncontrollable laughter. For instance, Sami and Beek know how to creatively use pauses to comedic effect. They’ll construct a scene where everything is a little awkward and quiet and then a character will blurt out something absolutely inane that will shatter the tension and surprise you into laughter. Beek and Sami talked about letting their actors just roll with things while they were making the film. They would let them each have moments of improv where they were allowed to go off script and come up with their own jokes, that would then surprise the two directors, and this nature of surprise is woven into the comedic sensibilities of the film. The Breaker Upperers has a perfect blend of clever comedy and also shock humour. Much of this comes down to the cast, all of whom are comfortable improvisors. This gives the film a sense of excitement because our expectations are constantly being subverted and surprised, because the actors themselves are surprising the cast and crew with their improv. It’s exciting to be able to watch the film and feel that energy in it, giving it a buzz that not many comedies have these days.
Underneath all the humour, though, is a truly touching story about female friendship and, to a greater extent, all friendships. How friendships come about, how they’re built and how they fall apart when challenged is at the centre of the film. How relationships with people we love and are intimate with affect our character and position in life is also an emotional key to the film. And without these affecting and emotional cores the film would feel superficial. We wouldn’t be excited by the comedy if we didn’t care about anyone. And thankfully they make us care; they make us care a lot.
I feel it important to mention that this film is absolutely a New Zealand film. It doesn’t sell out its setting but instead embraces everything associated with New Zealand. It has New Zealand’s trademark quietness and almost meekness. New Zealand is a country defined by its smallness and there are many jokes about this in The Breaker Upperers. As well as this, New Zealand comedy is defined by them making fun of themselves, New Zealanders never take anything too seriously. Using all of this to their advantage Sami and Beek create a film that is able to show the world what the tiny country at the bottom of the world can do in terms of art.
The real strengths of the film were Jackie and Madeleine: they are the coat hanger off which the rest of the film hangs. They wrote it, directed it and starred in it. They had such a full vision for their film and it comes through in every frame. It is above all a confident film. It knows what it wants to do. It knows the story it wants to tell. It gets in and tells it, there’s no aimless bumbling around. You’re in and out in 90 minutes with a smile on your face and a warm, fuzzy feeling in your heart. See this film not just because it is hilarious, exceptionally well written and performed but see it to celebrate our neighbours across the water. Celebrate New Zealand. It sure as hell deserves it.