When Keith (Guy Pearce) first married Megan (Amy Ryan), he had dreams of living his life as a musician. But when Megan became pregnant, he settled for a safe, stable job as a high school music teacher, leaving those dreams behind. Their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) is now in her last year of high school and Keith is pondering what the empty nest will mean, staring longingly at old photos and tapes from his garage band days and putting in hours preparing for an audition as a cellist with the New York Symphony Orchestra. Megan has no desire to upset their reliably secure life, though the topic is far from settled—the two no longer seem to talk to each other, they talk past each other, and dejected Keith never pushes the issue. Into this quagmire comes Sophie (Felicity Jones), a foreign exchange student staying with the family for a semester. A piano prodigy, Sophie has arrived in the states broken by the death of the uncle that raised her and finds it impossible to play. But through their contact, Keith and Sophie reawaken each other’s passion for music, which quickly turns into a passion for each other. As the two begin an emotional affair, the previously stifled Keith comes alive, but he also starts making poor decision after poor decision, until the entire life he’s established with Megan and Lauren threatens to come crashing down.
Breathe In director Drake Doremus first grabbed attention with his 2011 Sundance favorite Like Crazy, and he follows a similar filmmaking process with this follow-up, which hit the festival circuit in 2013 before a theatrical run the following year. In that process, he and co-writer Ben York Jones don’t write a screenplay so much as an incredibly meticulous outline: the characters, their motivations, the scenes, the story beats are all sketched out in full detail, but dialogue is either lightly suggested or entirely absent. Instead, all of the dialogue is improvised by the actors, and honed over multiple takes until Doremus and the actors all feel they’ve gotten to the heart of the scene’s purpose—it’s basically the Marvel method for screenplays. It’s a no doubt intense, exhausting way to work—in a making-of featurette on this Blu-Ray release, Pearce discusses the particular challenges of being a Brit trying to improvise in an American accent—but it’s hard to argue with the results. The method strips away the crutch of dry exposition and obvious plot mechanics; instead, the scenes thrum with the intimacy and emotional intensity of real life, which is only amplified by director of photography John Guleserian’s tight-in, handheld camerawork.
An early scene shows the full potential of the technique. Keith and Megan have just picked up Sophie from the airport and are driving her back to their home and making small talk. The subject of Keith’s musical ambitions comes up and as Sophie asks questions (not even deep, probing questions, but the kind of natural, keep-the-conversation-going questions anyone who just met him would ask in the same situation), Pearce encapsulates Keith mind, body, and soul as he replies. He makes nervous movements; his eyes gaze out of the passenger window as if trying to escape the conversation. His voice lowers, he stammers, he clearly downplays his own excitement because he knows—he just knows—that Megan is going to rain on his parade. Sophie innocently asks if he would quit teaching if he won the first chair position he’s auditioning for. Beat. Keith looks at Megan in the rearview mirror, mutters a quick “Yeah” under his breath, and his eyes go back out the window. Beat. Megan, eyes fixed on the road as she drives, smirks as she responds with a longer but more confident “Nooo…”; this is clearly a conversation they’ve had before, and she thinks the matter is settled. The camera lingers on Keith’s reaction to this expected dig, then on Sophie absorbing the response, the wheels turning as she tries to figure out these two people she’s about to be stuck with for a few months and already sees within Keith the yearning for more than Megan is letting him get out of life. It’s basically the entire movie boiled down to under a minute and a half, and all three actors nail it without a hint of artifice.
Those lingering shots form the heart of the movie. Without that expositional element to the dialogue, the characters hardly ever directly say what they’re feeling or thinking. Instead, Doremus lingers on his characters either before or after the meat of the scene, allowing those thoughts and feelings to become clear through facial expression and posture. Which I’m sure makes this movie sound like an interminable slog full of shots of beautiful people looking sad as they stare off in the middle distance, but it’s not: Breathe In clocks in at a sporty 97 minutes, and tends to move briskly from scene to scene, only hitting the brakes when it’s called for. Add in the score by Dustin O’Halloran, where every song is drenched in melancholy piano or mournful cello, and you have the recipe for a real emotional gut punch.
But all that craft and all that emotional intensity is in service of a plot that can never quite outrun its problematic center, the trope of the middle-aged married man getting his groove back by getting involved with a much younger woman. It’s thankfully chaste in that regard, and Doremus spends about as much time showing the bruises Keith’s behavior leaves behind as he does on the affair itself. But as the movie lurches to its conclusion, it heaps on a few too many melodramatic contrivances and its ending feels thematically unclear and unsatisfying.
As a result, Breathe In left me feeling more conflicted than any film I’ve watched in quite some time. The plot machinations and the way they were resolved left me cold, yet I was fascinated just the same by how it played out, how it was presented in such an unusual way, by such fine actors working at the top of their game, that even the tropes feel fresh and revitalized. I didn’t care for the story but I loved the storytelling, if that makes sense, and I was captivated enough that I plan to seek out Doremus’ other films to see how the same techniques fare with a less creepy central premise. Breathe In’s formalistic experiments alone make it worth a watch for people who are into exploring the crafts of filmmaking and storytelling, and I’m thankful Cohen Media Group rescued it from obscurity. Here’s hoping budding filmmakers find this film and its unusual storytelling techniques and ponder the possibilities. | Jason Green
Breathe In is distributed on Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a making-of featurette (9 min.), an interview with director Drake Doremus (4 min.), and the trailers for this film as well as several other upcoming Cohen Media Group releases. The film is also available to buy or rent digitally from the usual suspects, and to stream via the Cohen Media Channel exclusive to Amazon.