The Domestic Drama and Emotional Claustrophobia of ‘Breathe In’

[20 December 2013]

By Adrian Warren

Fair play to Drake Doremus, the young American writer and director of Breathe In. Just like his peer Steve Conrad (the screenwriter who penned the extraordinarily moving Wrestling Ernest Hemingway while still a 22-year-old creative writing student at Northwestern University), Doremus appears wise beyond his tender years, and also seems to have arrived fully-formed as a complex and creative cinematic force.

Doremus demonstrated much early promise, and he has thankfully managed to maintain both momentum and quality. His recent effort, 2011’s lovely and emotionally mature Like Crazy, was helmed well before Doremus hit 30. His latest, Breathe In, builds upon his clear interest in complex human relationships, and it’s a very tender and beautifully-made film as a result. Breathe In is about choices, about following urges with little thought as to the consequences and repercussions; it’s also a lament on the failure of monogamy, the power of attraction and temptation, and the grim inevitability of ageing.

Whilst the issues raised in Breathe In are universal and often complicated, the story itself is relatively simple. Sophie (Felicity Jones), a young English exchange student, arrives in upstate New York to stay with a middle-class family: music teacher and struggling cellist Keith (Guy Pearce), his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). Keith, who has been growing increasingly tired of the staleness of suburban domesticity, begins to develop a mutual attraction and connection with the much younger Sophie, the disastrous implications of which threaten to test both Keith’s impulsiveness and constitution, and the stability of his whole family.

Breathe In builds slowly. The first half of the film develops with great subtlety, essentially consisting of a series of vignettes showing the family going about their daily lives; amidst the routine, Doremus allows us an occasional spark of tension, and a peek at the latent emotion that threatens to come to the fore eventually.

The drama proper kicks in during the final half. Dustin O’Halloran’s achingly sad piano motifs punctuate the action with resonant beauty while Keith and Sophie cross a line and herald permanent change in everyone’s lives. (The script is often ingenious in its indirectness: during a secret lakeside rendezvous, a discussion between Keith and Sophie about stalled and failed careers (“it’s awful when you don’t get to do what you want to do”) is actually a painful and rather sad analogy about unhappiness, unfulfilled passion and stifled impulse).

Breathe In features a range of beautifully naturalistic performances from the main cast, suggesting that Doremus allowed the talented ensemble a great deal of improvisatory freedom during the production, such are the loose and frequently awkward exchanges between various characters.

Such “ordinary” realism is desirable in this context too, admirable even, as there is certainly very little that is contrived about the film’s dialogue. Listen, for example, to the overlapping, hesitant, staccato rhythm and content of a genuine, real life conversation—naturally full of pause and punctuation, and very different to written film dialogue—and you realise the actors in Breathe In have got its timbre just right. Unlike the polished scripts of mainstream cinema, the conversations between these characters may convey little that is overt, direct or obvious, yet their dialogue often reveals, with great subtlety, the developing dynamics of the film’s relationships.

As Keith, the family’s patriarch, Guy Pearce gives a particularly striking performance. Not only has he developed some measure of maturity and gravitas as a performer (it’s hard to believe that he cut his teeth as a fresh-faced pin-up on a cheesy Australian daytime soap), but he has also settled into his now-weathered and weary face; it’s certainly no stretch of the imagination to accept him as a handsome middle-aged man clinging unrealistically to youth, unable to see that responsibility looms large, vitality has faded and wanton actions are dangerous folly.

At the film’s heart is the illicit secret, around which various characters satellite; the tension and subterfuge involved in the deceit affects them all in different ways. Sophie, a main instigator, comes to teeter on the edge of panic, her voice cracking whenever she speaks; Keith, shallow and vain, acts with jarring irresponsibility and abandon, and Ryan, who plays Keith’s wife Megan, beautifully conveys over the course of an hour-or-so the slow and dawning realisation that something is very wrong within her family unit. As the betrayal becomes more apparent, you can almost see the jigsaw pieces slotting together in her mind, her mask of self-control peeled away layer-by-layer until raw emotion and upset are finally exposed unhindered.

The film’s powerful narrative is sustained right until the end too, with even the last very shot (a deeply affecting close-up of Keith’s face, his expression suggesting that although the worst of the storm has passed, the pain and damage remain) resonating long after the credits begin to roll.

It’ll be very interesting to see how Doremus’ career develops from this point. Already demonstrating a propensity for visual style, wisdom and tasteful restraint, one can only imagine the kind of searing and beautifully honest films this young director may be capable of making as he progresses into middle-age and beyond, drawing upon ever richer life experience as a great source of inspiration and realism.

Extras on the disc are fairly basic, and consist of a joint interview with director Doremus and star Jones, and a theatrical trailer, too.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/177350-breathe-in/