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SXSW Film Review: ‘The Breaker Upperers’

Got a thousand bucks and a yen to be single? Call “The Breaker Upperers,” two nihilistic New Zealand best friends and roommates who will knock at your soon-to-be ex’s door, hand them your watch, and announce you drowned. Writer-director-stars Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami play Jen and Mel, who committed exclusively, if platonically, to each other 15 years ago when they found out they were dating the same man. Now, both are so soured on love that their hearts have curdled, making it easy to stick fake pregnancy bellies under their shirts and shatter strangers’ lives.

Too bad for lovelorn rubes who here look like fools, but hooray for audiences discovering that the Wellington comedy scene has launched a female version of Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. (Waititi signed on to executive produce.) “The Breaker Upperers” has the increasingly familiar patter of Kiwi comedy: dogged naivety, nervous politeness, hazy thoughts that trail off like vapor.

Their business takes on all kinds of clients: straight, gay, male, female, old and angry, and young and stupid. Their newest client, 17-year-old rugby jock Jordan (“Boy” star James Rolleston, all grown up), can’t understand why his temperamental girlfriend Sepa (Ana Scotney) didn’t realize he broke up with her using emojis. He texted her a broken heart and a thunder cloud — take the hint. He’s as dumb as, well, pretty much every other character in the film, and he falls in love with Mel on sight. “Is that short for Melon?” he asks. Sigh. But when Mel and Jen interrupt his game to give Sepa the bad news, Mel can’t help staring lustily as he swigs a soda in slow-motion and then sensually pours the fizz all over his head.

That’s the kind of surrealist touch that makes “The Breaker Upperers” sparkle. It sputters along with an alt-world logic where a sucker like grief-stricken Annie (Celia Pacquola) truly believes her husband is at the bottom of the sea, not partying it up in Brazil. Annie will blunder back into Mel and Jen’s lives causing a minor crisis of conscience — or really, the realization that one of them still has a conscience — and along the way, she’ll set a penis hat on fire, blurt out too much about her gynecological health, and scramble Jen’s brain by putting on a ’90s Celine Dion karaoke ballad that will cause the cynic to hallucinate walking arm-in-arm with her ex (Cohen Holloway). In flashbacks, we see van Beek allow her face to soften. She plays most of the film on edge, accusing Mel of breaking company rules she’s just invented on the spot in order to make sure her only friend sticks with her. Someone’s got to be there for the awkward dinners with her sex-mad mom who refuses to frame pictures of Jen solo because her singleness makes her sad.

Van Beek and Sami are clearly banking their careers on their debut feature helping them become known names in America. (They’ve both cameoed in “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Eagle and Shark,” but, as Sami joked after the film’s SXSW premiere, you’d only spot her if she wrote down the timestamp.) Even so, they’ve let their film feel marvelously shaggy around the edges — their personalities pop — until after a whiplash-funny first hour, they play it safe with an everyone-gets-a-hug Paul Feig-style climax. (The movie literally ends with a soul train.) Still, it’s a terrific showcase for the duo and their entire cast, which, besides a pop-up bit from Clement, is curated from a local talent pool that Hollywood has yet to spelunk. After this, it should.

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