By Rodrigo Perez | The Playlist January 20, 2013 at 9:00AM
Intimate, expressive, agonizing and beautifully rendered, director Drake Doremus' third feature-length effort, "Breathe In," will be familiar to those that know the indie filmmaker's small, but already distinctive oeuvre. While similar in tone and style, his latest effort is like the darker cousin to Dormeus' wistful relationship drama "Like Crazy," possessing an intensity and tension that's emotionally bruising.
Re-teaming Doremus with his beguiling "Like Crazy" star Felicity Jones, "Breathe In" centers on a seemingly conventional story – an outsider and foreign exchange student that turns a family inside out – that's made authentic and credible by the writer/director's unique methods of improvisation and exploration exercises with his actors. Composer Dustin O'Halloran, a major element of the melancholy and longing mood of "Like Crazy" thanks to his beautifully forlorn score, is even more front and center in this Doremus effort.
In "Breathe In," music teacher Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is stifled, and longs for his creative and spontaneous past. A former rock musician, Keith has traded an uncertain but exciting life of living in vans and sleeping on sofas in Manhattan for the stability of the suburbs. While his glory days are going on 18 years away, Keith's yearning for more flares up like a rash every few months. His wife Megan (Amy Ryan) couldn't be happier to have those days far, far back in her rearview mirror and this clash of dreams and pragmatism is constantly at war within this household. Megan is focused on their daughter Lauren (newcomer Mackenzie Davis), a lithe and pretty swimming champion, who is looking forward to her final year of high school, but Keith is still not quite present with the family, his head still in the clouds of yesteryear.
His one distraction and release are the evenings when he is called upon to sub in as a cellist with a prestigious Manhattan philharmonic. The fuse from their passion long gone, both parents are looking down the barrel of an empty nest as Lauren's exit to college is only a few months away. And the prospect of facing their lives together without the glue that is their daughter is a troubling thought neither wants to consider. And so the entire family dynamic is challenged and upended when Megan, struggling for purpose with these worries on the horizon, decides to let an English foreign exchange student named Sophie (Jones) stay with the family for her final semester. In a type of sleepwalking fog for years, the presence of Sophie and her incredible musical talent reawaken a hunger in Keith, but also trigger his worst reckless tendencies towards the impulsive, illusory and romantic.
While they get off on the wrong foot, Keith is soon charmed and then smitten by the talented young girl who fires off a dazzling Chopin warm-up piece as a "fuck you" when he unexpectedly tries to embarrass her by asking the student to play something to the class as a way to introduce herself. She wipes the floor clean with her performance and Keith, jaw on the floor, is rendered utterly speechless.
As Sophie becomes part of the family fissure, going out to parties with Lauren and slowly feeling more comfortable with these strangers, a bond begins to form with a knowing glint of recognition; both Keith and Sophie don't feel like they belong here. This becomes an unspoken little secret all to their own. And as the furtive glances become more and more meaningful, the emotional ground beneath them begins to shift as their connection grows to a deafening roar in their ears. A destructive and irresponsible path seems like the only way forward.
Co-scripted by Doremus and his writing partner Ben York Jones, while emotionally truthful beats lead the way, it's the actors who crush these intense moments of desire and longing into something near breathless. As the daughter, distrustful of Sophie and the way her boyfriend leers at her, Mackenzie Davis is a minor revelation, and certainly worth keeping an eye on. Amy Ryan brings her workman-like realism to the table, but Jones and Pearce have a chemistry that's undeniably intoxicating and strikingly palpable.
Sensuous and plaintive, Dormeus' camera once again captures that arresting emotional truth that's marked his relationship dramas thus far, and there's even some moments of Malick-ian wonder and beauty. Characterized by low key, naturalistic light, "Breathe In," looks like a breathtakingly beautiful model with no make-up on. One of the most moving new composers working today, O'Halloran helps express waves of emotions between the silences and drowning-in-your-eyes stares. His score here is stunningly gorgeous.
Another mature, but complicated exploration of love and its dark side, "Breathe In" may not appeal to everyone. It possess a singular atmosphere and tenor that it rarely breaks free of – a vibrant dance sequence in a Manhattan club being the one conspicuous exception – and the tension in its second and third acts as the blossoming infatuation becomes bare, and can be incredibly uncomfortable. Admittedly, the crescendo of the final act does become a little predictable and even melodramatically operatic, but the final sequence of the film, once these minor calamities have subsided to a tolerable pitch, is just devastating. Keith, taking a photo portrait with his family, bares a cracked smile, revealing the lingering uncertainty of his place within this family dynamic. "Breathe In" may telegraph where it's going late in the game and these irrational decisions might make for some frustrated viewers, but it is without a doubt one of the most emotionally poignant and heartbreaking movies of the festival thus far. [B+]