Film review: Breathe In (15)
Love lessons in a strictly minor key
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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food