The promise of youth meets the onset of middle-age in Drake Doremus's elegantly composed and emotionally reticent drama Breathe In. Writer-director Doremus scored an indie hit at Sundance with his last film, the transatlantic romance Like Crazy (2011), which showcased his knack for intimate, personal storytelling and a heightened sensitivity to mood. I wonder if this was why UK audiences never got to see the one he made before that, Douchebag. That doesn't sound like it had much sensitivity to anything.
Breathe In begins literally, and perhaps ominously, with the portrait of a happy family. In a garden somewhere in upstate New York (or Massachusetts?) the Reynolds family are all smiles to the camera for one of those annual cards that Americans send one another to brag about their recent achievements. Keith (Guy Pearce) is a high-school music teacher in his late forties with a salt-and- pepper beard to remind us of his days as a wannabe rock star. He misses "the city", unlike his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), who's content with their rangy 18-year-old daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) and the vintage cookie jars she's been collecting over the years. Keith's dissatisfaction is quiet but insistent; he has been subbing as a cellist with a prestigious New York orchestra, and he prickles when his wife (with unknowing condescension) refers to it as his "hobby". You can see the thwartedness in his eyes.
With transition in the air, this might not be the best time for a foreign exchange student to arrive, upsetting the Reynolds' fragile ecology. This student would be Sophie, a pianist from Berkshire who'll attend the high school with Lauren for a term. She is played by Felicity Jones, who starred for Doremus in Like Crazy and whose dark-eyed, open-faced prettiness belies her years. She's 29, but can pass for 18, as she does here. Mother and daughter take on the early duty of bonding with the newcomer while Keith broods and has a sneaky look through her suitcase – he's a bit of a pill, in truth.
His gradual thawing with Sophie is nicely worked. At first, he's surprised that she doesn't practise; she explains that she only wants to play when she "chooses". When in front of the class he challenges her to play something as a way of introducing herself, she sits with great reluctance at the piano. She opens with Chopin, played pianissimo to begin, then suddenly bursting into a virtuoso display of speed and technique: Keith actually flinches at the abrupt change. Later, when he's fretting about his audition for a permanent chair in the orchestra, she kindly talks him through a breathing exercise to calm his nerves. Little glances of sympathy flicker back and forth, silences become pregnant with implication, and Sophie's presence begins to stir an uneasiness in the house. This cuckoo in the nest sings a rather beguiling song.
The blame isn't entirely hers. When Lauren's ex-boyfriend (Matthew Daddario) invites her for a night on the town, Sophie assumes it's an outing en masse; little does she know the boy has arranged the evening just for the two of them, or that his opportunist lunge will spread gossip down the school corridor like marsh gas. And it is possibly not her conscious intention to pluck the heartstrings of Keith, whose dormant ambition is inflamed by this chance proximity to youth and its fearlessness. He yearns for the old days of being "creative, spontaneous, inspired", though a closer reading of his wife's expression might have warned him that she's twigged what's really driving his restlessness.
Spontaneity, indeed, is very much the element Doremus is looking for from his actors. Pearce, who's tremendous here, has admitted that the improv method was largely unfamiliar to him. Whereas most directors get an actor to say the line inside the first 10 seconds, "Drake would roll the camera for 20 minutes and would go back and do another take if it didn't feel truthful." This painstaking approach to "the truth" is talked about with reverence by its practitioners, though I'm not sure how much of it is perceptible up on screen. There is some very fine naturalistic acting in Breathe In; late on, Megan enters the house and instead of bawling out Sophie she fixes her with a look that refreshes the word "withering". It would take the recipient a while to recover from that look.
But however impressive the craftsmanship, Breathe In feels, as Like Crazy did, rather famished as a drama. There just isn't enough incident to go round. While you admire the restraint between the smitten pair, and the fact that they don't just jump on one another, the film needs more juice to keep the tension going. There's also a very feeble contrivance whereby a lakeside tryst is rumbled by the one person who must not be allowed to find out. Doremus is slightly in love with his own tremulous good taste. What in a generous mood you might call "sensitive" can, after prolonged exposure, feel more like "drippy". The one major explosion of rage here involves someone smashing cookie jars against a hardwood floor. Try as I might, I couldn't really summon a sharp intake of breath at that.