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Fatal attraction fuels midlife crisis in ‘Breathe In’

After five feature films, director Drake Doremus has proven his interests as an artist lie in the human heart. Breathe In is his latest trifle that dabbles in romance, and similar to his 2011 indie darling, Like Crazy, it benefits from the charismatic performers in the frame, but suffers from inconsistent screenwriting.

Breathe In
Rating: R
Running time: 91 min.
Stars: Felicity Jones, Mackenzie Davis, Guy Pearce

Once again Doremus uses Felicity Jones (as he did with Like Crazy) as an entry point to the film’s setting. Jones plays a beautiful British foreign exchange student named Sophie. After the death of the uncle who raised her, she makes a rash decision to leave Britain and study in America. Ensconced in the drab suburbia of upstate New York, the Reynolds family decides to house Sophie for the remainder of the academic semester.

The picturesque family initially welcomes Sophie with open arms. Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) befriends the foreigner from the get-go. Both at the tail end of their high school senior year, the two find common ground in academia and youth.

Slowly the film hints the marriage between Keith (Guy Pearce) and Megan (Amy Ryan) may not particularly be a happy one. The two seem to be having the same debate they’ve been having for the past 17 years: Keith, a cellist turned high school music teacher, wants to move back into the city. Amy contends it’s too expensive and unaffordable.

This conversation between the two is had on a number of occasions — each time arriving at the same sad, but inevitable conclusion: Keith and Megan simply want different things in life.

It takes all of 10 minutes for Doremus’ film to reveal itself to us: this is a movie about a conflicted father who has arrived at a crossroads, both morally and artistically.

From the first scene, we sense an attraction forming between Keith and Sophie. That lust for one another only strengthens when Sophie masterfully plays an impromptu ballad on the piano for Keith’s classroom. She is stunning, both as a pianist and a woman. Jones imbues this character with a sense of confidence and understanding of the world that somehow manages to not come off as precocious.

In turn, Keith treats Sophie as the adult she is.

The more time they spend together, the more passionate their affection becomes. When Keith mentions the possibility of retiring from teaching and working full-time as a cellist, his wife shoots the idea down — claiming his musical dreams are just that: dreams. Perhaps this is why Keith finds comfort in confiding in Sophie — someone who wholeheartedly believes in his talents and doesn’t laugh them off as silly fantasies.

Written by Doremus and Ben York Jones, Breathe In concocts a sort of stacked deck scenario in which the film nearly dupes us into believing a clandestine dalliance between Sophie and Keith is a viable option for these characters. Essentially positing that a romance practiced surreptitiously — which would invariably break up a home and cause Lauren and Megan an immeasurable amount distress — is an acceptable course of action. And perhaps it is.

The film hits its stride when exploring the sexual temptation between Keith and Sophie, while simultaneously examining the ongoing battle between choice versus availability. For nearly two decades Keith has chosen to be a teacher because it was practical. It was secure. It provided economic stability for his family.

Now that his daughter is about to leave for college, it’s time for him to reconsider what he wants to do with the rest of his life. I suspect this sort of midlife reevaluation is something nearly all parents can identify with.

When the film is not on this path of introspection, it attempts to paint a portrait of high school life for Sophie and Lauren. Seldom do you encounter such a mystifying snapshot of youth than in Breathe In. The men who enter Lauren’s life are ungainly — pedopholic jocks who speak in profanity and platitudes. It’s difficult to keep a sense of rhythm when the film is sporadically interrupted by these dismal sequences. Thankfully these scenes don’t occupy too much of Breathe In.

However, something that is a consistent issue throughout the film is its tendency to operate at arms-length with the characters. Doremus’ icy detachment to the story is offsetting. We get to know Keith and Sophie only so much as we’re permitted to know them.

Come the final thirty minutes of Breathe In, we are presented with some calculation in the writing that is unnatural and unexpected considering the nuance that has come before.

Doremus’ is a competent enough director to tell the story he wants to tell. Replete with gray and blue compositions, rainy days, and elegiac piano ballads, there is in an unshakable air of melancholy that resides over Breathe In.

In some way this despondency reflects the emotions of the characters. We know there’s turmoil and tension percolating beneath the surface of the Reynolds’ family, it just takes the arrival of Sophie to break it free.

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