The first time I made a serious attempt at jogging as an “adult” it was in a sad attempt to impress a foreign exchange student named Isabelle. I was 22 and she was 18, but wait, it gets even more pathetic. She was staying with my girlfriend’s (at the time) family. That was the beginning and the end of it, but I share the embarrassment to acknowledge that the appeal and temptation of the “exchange student” is more than just a late night Skinemax cliche.
Breathe In, the new film from c0-writer/director Drake Doremus, explores that dynamic but takes it to far more serious extremes than a simple run around the block.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce), his wife Megan (Amy Ryan), and their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) are living a seemingly content life in New York State. He plays cello, teaches music at his daughter’s school, and is preparing to audition for an important chair position with the Philharmonic, but he has an underlying desire to return to the simplicity of his youth. The family takes in a British foreign exchange student named Sophie (Felicity Jones), and it’s not long before their illusory happiness is threatened.
Sophie turns out to be a bit of a musical prodigy, talented in ways the other women in Keith’s life simply aren’t, and her artistic interests remind him of his own younger days playing music and touring the country as part of a band. He and Megan had to marry young due to Lauren’s unplanned arrival, and his regrets live just below the surface. Keith and Sophie slowly form an unspoken attraction evident in prolonged glances and the slightest wisps of a smile. He sees his youth and fresh love, she sees stability and a good man, and together they see an impossible future.
Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones tell a touching story of temptation that refuses to dip into the stickier aspects of the developing relationship, areas more common to films like the Poison Ivy franchise, and instead focuses on the emotions that drive these kinds of desires. There’s an element here of a slow-motion car crash — we know Keith and Sophie are heading for disaster — but the film lays a solid groundwork of need, loneliness, and the fragility of human relationships that makes it impossible to turn away for reasons well beyond simply wanting to see the impact.
The script sets the stage, but much of the film’s power comes from Pearce’s performance. He doesn’t overdo it or play Keith as a lascivious older man and instead reveals a man struggling with confused desires even though he’s smart enough to know they’re not nearly as clear-cut as they seem. He has dreams of being a different man living a different life, but his efforts to make that change themselves leave a lot to be desired. Pearce shows a true vulnerability, a fracture in an otherwise good man, and the results are both honest and heartbreaking.
The film loses that focus on occasion as it works to build Lauren’s story involving an ex-boyfriend and a rumored dalliance with Sophie. They’re smaller, less mature concerns than the ones facing Keith and feel more contrived and weightless in their execution. Less of a problem is the lack of real depth to Sophie’s character. She’s an alabaster whirlwind moving fiercely yet gently in and out of the Reynolds’ life, but her motivations are open to a bit too much interpretation. Jones deserves credit for making Sophie as believable as she is though, a mature teenager aware of the damage she’s leaving in her wake but seemingly powerless to stop it.
Breathe In is an affecting drama about a romance that shouldn’t be, but it never feels dirty or exploitative. It knows the truth of human behavior, and it respects it. And if nothing else, you can’t go wrong with any movie that features a sixty second cameo by Kyle MacLachlan essentially voicing the devil on someone’s shoulder pointing out how attractive and sexy a young British girl is.
The Upside: Strong performances all around; focus on the dramatic tension and build-up
The Downside: Teen subplot is cliched and cumbersome; Sophie not fully explored as a character
On the Side: Felicity Jones plays a high-schooler here, but she was in her late twenties when the film was made.
Breathe In opens in limited theatrical release this Friday.