Relationships come in all shapes and sizes, and unfortunately a reasonable chunk of all of those partnerships are destined to end in a break up. The law of averages simply makes it so, as people wander through their life and try to find something lasting and substantial. However, the way people break up, and the different circumstances in which those splits take place have been a much-used narrative device for pretty much the entire time that cinema has existed. It's something everyone can relate to. However, I struggle to think of an example of a film I've previously seen that used break ups as it's entire narrative device, but that is exactly what micro-budget film Brakes attempts, with somewhat mixed results.
Brakes is essentially a collection of short scenes featuring a variety of couples in the final moments of their relationships, encompassing a variety of different types of relationship as well as featuring a number of high-profile British actors and comedians. However, these break up scenes are counterbalanced by mirrored encounters of the couples featured meeting for the first time and reflecting the break ups, be it as a contrast or through their similarity in the way the relationship ended.
The most striking thing about breaks is the contrast between the strength of the cast and the clear lack of budget. Noel Fielding, Julien Barratt, Paul McGann, Julia Davis, Kelly Campbell and many others all put in short but memorable turns in Brakes. Equally, the camera work is minimal and low budget, with the shaky nature of the lack of a tripod to steady the shot at points quite jarring to the eyes. The sound quality is also not always great, with the actors’ dialogues difficult to make out at points, especially during the scenes filmed outdoors. That being said, once acclimatised to the unusually low budget setting it begins to work in favour of the way the stories are couched. For the most part the stories being told are very real, with raw emotion and believable dialogue that slick production values might have undermined. It becomes a visceral document of the way relationships unfold and unfortunately end.
The narrative structure of Brakes is intriguing, but doesn’t always work as well as it was likely envisioned. By showing the break ups first it does allow the audience to have a happy ending (or is that beginning?) in the second half of the film, which is a nice touch and stops this from being a very depressing affair. However, it also means that the first half shows the emotional weight of characters under the strain of a failing relationship, but without any real context of their larger relationship meaning that the break up doesn’t have quite the same punch that it might do with a bit more context. That said, perhaps this is a deliberate conceit in order to show that failed relationships aren’t necessarily defined by the way they end. IT's certainly intriguing, but it definitely works better in some instances than others. Noel Fielding's character arc is really sweet and affecting, while Julien Barratt's encounter and subsequent "relationship" is downright bizarre. Julia Davis's break up is somewhat ineffective, despite a great performance on her part, while the first encounter scene between herself and Peter Wight is really impactful. Paul McGann and Kate Hardie offer one of the most gripping and emotionally intense scenes throughout, while many of the other scenes seem a little more throwaway. It's a very difficult task that director Mercedes Grower set herself, but she manages to maintain a consistent tone throughout, despite the technical limitations and the handicap of the narrative structure.
Brakes cuts to the core of the way relationships work, and the many reasons why they cease to do so. The light and the intense and well counterbalanced, and while it doesn’t always work there is plenty here to keep the audience invested and a mixture of reality and believable characters that make it easy to invest in. Despite what the marketing of Brakes might suggest, this is not a rom-com, far from it, but it does have a comedic edge where necessary, and despite it being ostensibly a film about break-ups I still ended the film with a smile on my face.