There are many things bad and wrong about the current template for romantic comedies, but a big one is that they end way too early in the story. Romantic triumph is not getting that special someone to agree to hang out with you exclusively, or even to marry you. Romantic triumph is managing to stay with that special someone for years or even decades without murdering each other. With her feature debut, actor turned writer-director Mercedes Grower takes on that rom-com failing, upending it and skewering it in Brakes.
A comedy only in the bleakest way, and romantic only in how it holds up its relationships as bitterly unromantic, this ultra-low-budget indie uses its own rough edges to great effect: its quick-and-dirty handheld style makes it feel like we’re eavesdropping on the nine London couples whom we witness in the throes of their relationships falling apart or, in some cases, failing to ignite in the first place. Grower (who also appears among the ensemble) cleverly opens with the film with “Part Two,” an array of vignettes about rejections coming after a brief encounter or one-night stand, or the final outbursts of pain and strife that have clearly been simmering for a long time. These are by turns brutal, absurd, and painfully realistic, little scenes of hostility, awkwardness, and personal failure played out by some of the UK’s finest purveyors of ferocious and/or weird comedy, including Julian Barratt (Mindhorn) and Noel Fielding from The Mighty Boosh (though they don’t appear together), Julia Davis (Psychobitches), and Steve Oram (Sightseers); the cast also features Paul McGann (Doctor Who) and Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker).
Then Brakes rewinds to “Part One,” in which we witness each couple’s meet-cute, the surprise coincidences and vulnerabilities that forge immediate connections between them. You know, just like all those fantasy rom-coms indulge in. What’s deliberately missing is all the in-between. We don’t need to know where all the resentment and acrimony we witnessed earlier came from, because we already know. It’s simply the reality of most relationships, the inevitability that the implied happily-ever-after of the traditional rom-com asks us to accept on faith won’t be the fate of their meet-cute couples. Brakes knows otherwise, and with grim glee rips that fantasy to shreds.