People will hate Drake Doremus’s Breathe In. They will walk out of the theater and be sad and confused and maybe even (probably, really, more than anything) angry. They will hate it because they will hate the characters that exist inside of the film, and they will hate it because they make them mad, and they will hate it because it is not Like Crazy 2.
And that’s okay, because while Breathe In will elicit all these emotions (and, quite likely, more), it is an immensely accomplished and measured film, an assured follow-up to Doremus’s other Sundance hit, 2011’s Like Crazy, and even more assured because it is not like Like Crazy, not at all, and that is something to marvel at. While Doremus and his co-screenwriter, Ben York Jones, turned their eyes on a couple that should be together in Like Crazy, when it comes to Breathe In, they go in the complete opposite direction, to a couple that should, by no means, be together. And while we all know that as every minute of Breathe In steadily ticks by, they don’t know that (or, at least, they refuse to believe that), and the result is car crash cinema done right. You can’t look away. But you can’t cheer for it in the slightest.
Keith (Guy Pearce) likes music. He does not, however, like his job teaching music. A failed rocker, he now teaches piano at the local high school while also biding his time filling in for missing cellists at a symphony and hoping to get a first chair position at an upcoming audition. His wife Megan (Amy Ryan) doesn’t get the music scene – that much is clear from her referring to his gig with the symphony as “a hobby.” And she likes what their life is like without Keith trying to hit it big with his band – “The Unconscious Brothers,” because of course – including their beautiful old house in upstate New York, and their beautiful teenaged daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis, a revelation) and her beautiful little hobby of collecting and reselling cookie jars. So why not introduce an exchange student here into their little idyll? Why not add to the family, if only for a semester?
Well. You know. You should know. You should see it from a mile away. It’s that clear, it’s that palatable, it’s that obvious. Sophie (Felicity Jones) is a British high school senior (we are made aware that she is of legal age even before we meet her, the first time that an unaware audience may draw their breath and know what is coming) who has a haunted past and a prodigious talent for the piano. She and Keith will communicate through music, through their talents, and we will watch it all and know what is coming next, and be just as powerless to stop it as Keith and Sophie themselves are. It is wrenching. Breathe In is an unhappy outing, a wrenching little bit of cinema, a heartbreaker. No one will emerge unscathed. And, still worse, we know that early. It’s all just a matter of wading through Doremus and Jones’s perfectly calibrated tension, choking on the subtext, holding our breath until Sophie and Keith let theirs out. It is horrible. It will make you unhappy. But, then again, everyone else in Breathe In is unhappy, too. Why should we escape?
People will hate Breathe In. Audiences will be upset and unhinged by its depictions of infidelity and dishonesty and the fact that, when you really think about, when you really look, the person most punished by all of it is the most innocent person involved. Nothing happens in Breathe In that you won’t see coming, even Doremus and York Jones fall prey to cliché (especially during the film’s final third), but that doesn’t stop it from being hard to turn away from, even as we all silently whisper, “no, no, not that” at the events unfolding on-screen. You can’t stop it. You can only watch.
The Upside: A revelatory performance from Mackenzie Davis; a wrenchingly honest portrayal of what happens to unhappy and unfulfilled people who think they are without options and choices.
The Downside: An unhappy, awful-feeling subject matter that will leave many feeling both angry and repulsed.
On the Side: Hey, Felicity Jones also starred in Like Crazy. You should watch that, too.