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The presence of a beautiful British exchange student rattles the shaky foundations of an American family in Breathe In. Teaming again with actress Felicity Jones and co-writer Ben York Jones after their 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Like Crazy, director Drake Doremus confirms his knack for pinpointing subtle emotional tremors on fragile personal landscapes, even if some too-easy coincidences and pat dramatic moments chip away at the compressed story’s credibility. Commercial chances appear iffy for this nicely composed, nuanced work that has the weight of a modest short story rather than of a larger composition.
A proponent of hand-held camera work on his previous features, including the outright comedies Spooner and Douchebag, Doremus employs a steadier, more controlled gaze here as he goes for a more mature approach, in addition to bathing the drama in classical music, befitting the talents of the two main characters.
Living in a nice house in a verdant New York community about 90 minutes from Manhattan, the Reynolds family consists of Keith (Guy Pearce), a former rock musician who teaches music locally and often subs as a cellist in a New York orchestra; his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), who is rather pathetically preoccupied with her cookie jar collection, and their blond daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), a lanky high school senior and top swimmer.
A bit disheveled and distracted most of the time, Keith misses the excitement and musical promise of his youth, so he pins what could be his last hope for professional fulfillment on an imminent audition for a chair with the symphony. Mackenzie will be off to college in a year and it’s hard to tell what then lies ahead for her seemingly mismatched parents.
Arriving during a thunderstorm to stay for a term is an 18-year-old from England they’ve never met. Sophie (Jones) is a strikingly pretty and serious girl who’s polite but discloses precious little about her personal life and can’t hide her disappointment at not being closer to the city. Lauren and Sophie try to bond and have a little fun, but the former’s an athlete who, she allows, recently lost her virginity to the full-of-himself Aaron (Matthew Daddario), while the latter is a guarded intellectual, suggesting limited prospects for a real friendship.
Keith expects Sophie to practice the piano for hours per day but he hears nothing until he asks her to play something for his class. In a powerful scene, Sophie begins reluctantly, then throws herself into an electrifying performance that mesmerizes Keith. A bond thus established, it then becomes a question of how these two music lovers handle the suddenly delicate domestic situation and if they allow what ought not to happen to indeed happen.
Even if there were not others to be impacted, namely Keith’s wife and daughter, there would be the issue of a roughly 30-year age difference. From every angle except for mutual affinity (and whatever unknown personal and man issues Sophie may have), this is a relationship festooned with stop signs and blinking red lights. Then there’s the monkey wrench supplied by Aaron, who asks Sophie to join him and a bunch of friends for a night in New York, only to trick her and turn up alone for a one-on-date and put heavy moves on, which turns Lauren irrevocably against both of them.
To his credit, Doremus handles this potential full-blown melodrama with delicacy, restraint and a very grown-up attitude, but stumbling occasionally by too conveniently having Lauren turn up where she can observe her dad and Sophie together and inviting audience derision for Megan by making her seem silly and disdainful of her husband’s sincere musical ambitions.
As much as one might identify with the romantic and/or erotic desires on both sides of the equation and as acutely played as they are by Pearce and Jones, the tortured feelings of Keith and Sophie should ideally have been dialed up a couple of notches to better connect with the audience, just as their emotional and psychological profiles could have been more detailed to create a fuller picture of their motivations and hesitations. As it is, viewer response to the buildup to the denouement comes more from the brain than from the heart, a limitation to overall response to the film.
In addition to the fine work from the two leads, newcomer Davis is a real find as a young lady whose final year of high school turns into a big unwanted belly flop. Ryan is cheated by an underdeveloped role.
Dustin O’Halloran‘s original compositions merge with works by Chopin and others to form a wonderfully rich soundtrack. Doremus’ regular cinematographer John Guleserian achieves exquisite luminosity in both exteriors and interiors with what looks to be mostly natural light.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Indian Paintbrush, Super Crispy Entertainment
Cast: Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis, Matthew Daddario, Ben Shenkman, Alexandra Wentworth, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenwriters: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones
Producers: Jonathan Schwartz, Andrea Sperling, Steven Rales, Mark Roybal
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designer: Katie Byron
Costume designer: Emma Potter
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Music: Dustin O’Halloran
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