Movies

Exploring The Nuanced Relationship At The Heart Of ‘We Broke Up’ With Aya Cash And William Jackson Harper

What if Marriage Story but everyone is nice? Like, no one’s arm goes through a wall or the pain of enduring a gash. There are arguments, but you don’t so much feel people sprinting away from each other with a quickness or the effects of an explosive war. What if it was more like two people on separate rafts floating away from each other, hands outstretched? Wouldn’t that be a gut punch to see something so naturally attuned to the way magical beautiful things die if the tides don’t shift in their favor?

We Broke Up is all of those things, but it’s also funny, with a grounded and concise story and characters that cause you to invest deeply in an outcome that often feels like it’s teetering on being obvious before circling back.

The leads, William Jackson Harper and Aya Cash, are our friends from TV (The Good Place and You’re The Worst), and they’re charming and sometimes heartbreaking here as Doug and Lori, a couple dealing with the realization that they might want different things after years together. Directed by TV veteran Jeff Rosenberg (who co-wrote with playwright Laura Jacqmin), the film has a throwback indie feel while both leaning into and evading rom-com tropes. As the setting, there’s a destination wedding at the camp where Lori and her sister spent time as kids. There are also quirky family members, near hookups, and a runaway bride. But it’s all a misdirect to contrast the back and forth going on between Harper and Cash’s characters while they pretend everything is great to try and get through Lori’s sister’s wedding to a guy she only recently met.

When I spoke with Harper and Cash recently, the former Good Place star told me he was drawn to the way the film subverts those tropes and, particularly, the realistic way it handles a tough moment that some relationships reach.

“It just felt very real to me that sometimes things don’t disintegrate because of a huge transgression. Sometimes these [relationships] disintegrate because people are growing in different directions or want different things. And that’s hard. It’s a lot thornier. […] Eventually, you have to either agree to move forward or to let it go because there’s really not a middle ground to be found.”

This film will doubtlessly spark some reflection about your own relationships and the choices we all make along the way. It’s something Cash spoke to in a pitch-perfect way when describing to me the experience of being with her long-time partner and the many different versions of ourselves that we cycle through when with someone for that long.

“I find that I’ve been in many relationships over 16 years. I’ve been with different people, and it just happens to be the same person. What you want at 22 and what you’re looking for in a partner is different than what you want at 30 and 35. What you’re looking for in life changes and how you want to live your life changes as you grow up. And so I feel like I was lucky enough to find a partner who was also changing and growing, but we’ve definitely had periods of time where we’ve looked at each other and been like, ‘Do we want the same thing? Do we want this?’ The kids conversation, the marriage conversation. The markers of adulthood come up and you have to have a real reckoning on, are you on the same page about those things? So I feel like you have to constantly re-date someone and re-get to know them as you both change.”

For Harper, the experience of the film kicked up slightly uncomfortable questions about the way he has viewed his own relationship, specifically with the idea that we’re supposed to have an idea for what our life is supposed to look like. Something he says is a part of this story.

“[The film] is something where it made me revisit some things in the past where I’m like, ‘How many times did I make decisions or had conflicts that stemmed from not what I actually want, but what I want my life to look like?’ And that’s kind of a tough realization to have sometimes because it feels, I don’t know, vain is not the right word, but something about it feels like it’s not about the other person and with it not being about the other person that feels off to me. And so it just made me look back at times where I’ve leaned into that thought process more than I think is healthy.”

While there’s a heaviness around the main relationship, We Broke Up is still often rooted in comedy, playing on the awkwardness of navigating a wedding for a mismatched pair and the absurdity of grown adults throwing themselves completely into a batch of outdoor parties and drinking games while unlocking nostaglia and reliving the summer camp experience. There’s also heart, particularly with how Harper’s character is so deeply woven into the Cash character’s larger family.

All parts assembled, Rosenberg and Jacqmin deliver a story about the toughness of the ties that hold people together. Something that hits hard when compared to the flippant way relationships often come undone on TV and in films. This is also a story that feels incomplete. And I mean that in the best way. As Harper says near the end of our chat when I ask if he allows himself to imagine these characters a decade down the road, “there’s a whole hell of a lot of story left. [With] a huge journey that follows this.” And while a Before trilogy like run of stories and check ins seems unlikely and we may never see how this unfolds, we care enough about these characters and the tangible love that they have for each other from start to finish that we wish we could and we wish them well.

‘We Broke Up’ is out in select theaters and on VOD.

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