Writer and director Drake Doremus’ excellent Like Crazy (2011) hinted at fresh and sincere filmmaking style, seeking to explore the intricacies of young love by conveying feelings of longing, heartache and isolation in a natural yet sophisticated manner. In Breathe In (2013), a story of forbidden love set against the backdrop of a family man’s mid-life crisis, he broadens his scope and ambition by exploring a theme which features heavily in American literature but considerably less so in cinema: the malaise of suburban middle-class domesticity and with it the repetitiveness of routine in family life, in this case that of the Reynolds.
We first meet this family posing for a photograph they will send out with family news to friends and relatives: the confirmation that all is well in the Reynolds’ household, or at least the appearance that it is so. “Just try to look comfortable and natural,” says the photographer to Megan (Amy Ryan) and her husband Keith (Guy Pearce). Keith doesn’t pretend to look comfortable in either the photo or his life. A frustrated music teacher and ex-indie rocker yearning for a return to youthful spontaneity, he feels that the time has come for a change of career and a return to the city. He epitomises the man-boy standing at a mid-life crossroads.
Having failed to step up to a cosy family existence in the leafy New York suburbs, he has become increasingly aware of the growing disconnect between his own life expectations and a family stability instilled by his pretty and devoted housewife and their teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). Cue the arrival of Sophie (Felicity Jones), a British exchange student yearning for the excitement of the Big Apple. She is portrayed as a reserved 18 year-old who has reached her own crossroads, yearning for more grown-up thrills and an escape from the Berkshire countryside. She reluctantly woos her classmates with a prodigious Chopin piano rendition and chooses to read by the pool instead of playing with her peers.
Doremus lays down the foundations of this story with a quiet elegance, working from rough outlines which – through intensive collaboration, improvisation and sensitivity to mood – gradually become condensed enough to capture moments of rare intimacy and insight. Set against the backdrop of Dustin O’Halloran’s piano compositions, Breathe In highlights an ability to create a believable set of people and places through restrained drama focusing instead on vibe and atmosphere. Unfortunately, this same restraint is not applied in the handling of the plot.
Breathe In’s final act shifts into an unnecessary new gear, undoing the astute observations and patient mise-en-scène which carefully shaped these characters and their inner-conflicts by bringing them together in overly dramatic fashion. Like its unrelenting soundtrack, what starts as a low-key piano piece ends in a melodramatic symphonic crescendo. For all its impressive craftsmanship in contextualisation, the unravelling of the story turns out to be far too obvious and disappointingly at odds with Doremus’ own view that “less is always more”.
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