Writer/director Drake Doremus’ BREATHE IN is a heady of mix of great acting and poignant drama that will stay with you.
Drake Doremus won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2011 for his film of two students falling deeply in love, Like Crazy, which also saw his lead actress Felicity Jones honoured for her performance. They now team up again for BREATHE IN, a beautifully nuanced drama that sees Jones give a luminous portrayal of a young woman unsure of what she wants to do with her life, this time opposite Guy Pearce giving a no less brilliant performance as a man very much at a turning point in his.
Sophie (Jones) is a gifted pianist who’s wanted to visit America for a long time. She gets the opportunity via an exchange programme, where’s she’s luckily placed at the upstate New York home of music teacher Keith (Pearce), his wife Megan (the terrific Amy Ryan, who I’ve admired since her Oscar-nominated performance in Ben Affleck’s directorial debut Gone Baby Gone) and their teenage daughter Lauren (very talented newcomer Mackenzie Davis). The family seems to live a fairly outwardly contented life, with photo sessions in their garden for a yearly ‘what the family are up to over summer’ newsletter but behind the smiles, there’s discontent and longing.
Keith used to play in a band in his youth but now in his 40s, he’s finding himself wanting to revisit that life he had back in the city, as the teaching and substitute cello playing in the local orchestra are no longer quite as fulfilling. He tries to talk to his wife about it but she’s comfortably settled and knows they won’t have the kind of privileged lifestyle they currently lead if they go to New York. Lauren, whilst a talented young swimmer, yearns for Aaron (Matthew Daddario) the boy at her school with whom she’s had a brief relationship but who now is not interested in her. And so both Keith and Lauren’s lives are in a somewhat fragile state on Sophie’s arrival, ready to be affected by the intoxicating presence of this quiet and enigmatic girl.
Doremus elicits stunning performances from his two leads in particular – Jones is an actress whose work I hadn’t seen before but having watched her in this film, it’s clear she possesses a captivating charisma on screen. I’d love to also catch her current portrayal as the title character in Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman as I hear it’s quite something. Pearce is an actor I’ve admired ever since his incredible performance in L.A. Confidential and whose varied work since has, of course, encompassed everything from the confused Leonard in Christopher Nolan’s Memento and his brief but telling cameo as Staff Sgt Thompson in The Hurt Locker to the wonderfully dangerous Aldrich Killian in Iron Man Three.
It’s to Doremus’ credit that these two actors hold the screen so well when they’re apart and then create such a beguiling combination when they’re together, that makes the movie such a fascinating experience. With sparse dialogue in Keith and Sophie’s scenes together and an eye contact that reminds you of the heady moments in Peter Weir’s Witness where a look really can speak volumes, Jones and Pearce seem to reach for something they identify within the other person, a connection that they both know can only hurt those around them but which doesn’t stop them from wanting it.
With not many features under his belt, Doremus has made a very mature film with BREATHE IN, where his style of improvised scenes and dialogue seem to flow over you as a viewer. He allows the story and characters to develop at a measured pace, without explicitly telling you what’s happening and the script, which he’s co-written with his Like Crazy collaborator Ben York Jones, instead lets you often make up your own mind about the actions you’ve seen played out.
There’s gorgeous cinematography too from John Guleserian, whose use of shadows and half-light as the movie’s setting moves from summer into autumn, seem to envelop the characters and add to the unclear feelings that so many of them are consumed with. And Dustin O’Hallaron’s score cleverly uses piano and cello as motifs for the two main characters, as well as pieces by Schumann and most strikingly Chopin in an amazing scene when Sophie plays for Keith and his class and he (and us) see how great music can be inspiring, especially when it’s played with such self-possessed emotion.
“It’s so hard to actually do what you want to do” says Sophie in one of the stolen moments that she and Keith share and watching them struggle with feelings they can’t quite comprehend, whilst choosing to try and move towards some kind of freedom in their lives is brilliantly evoked in this drama, that I hope will stay with you as much as it has with me since seeing it.