With his previous film “Like Crazy,” writer-director Drake Doremus showed a talent for mixing grand gestures with small, acutely observed details in a striking combination. But his follow-up “Breathe In” attempts a similar feat with considerably less success. The tale of a suburban family whose internal troubles flare up when an outsider brings pressure on them is mostly composed of slow simmering scenes punctuated by the occasional melodramatic explosion, but the boil is at such a low temperature that it grows tedious, while by comparison the big moments come across as almost absurdly overstated.
The script, written in collaboration with Ben York Jones, is bookended by scenes of the upstate New York Reynolds family—Keith (Guy Pearce), Megan (Amy Ryan) and teen daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis)—posing for successive photos to accompany their annual missives to friends reviewing their year. Between the two shoots, they’re rocked by the presence of Sophie (Felicity Jones), a British exchange student who challenges the Reynolds’ marriage and Lauren’s apparently charmed existence, though not as a result of any maliciousness on her part.
Keith is a frustrated musician, looking back on a closed career as rock star and now teaching music classics at the high school where Lauren’s a star swimmer. He also moonlights as a cellist with a NYC orchestra in which he’s nervously applying for a permanent position. Megan is a stay-at-home mom who, among other things, is an avid collector of cookie jars.
Sophie arrives expecting to be in the city but finds herself in the sticks, and not terribly happy about it. Megan goes overboard in welcoming her, and Lauren introduces her at school, where she’s enrolled in Keith’s class. He’s so obsessed with preparing for his orchestra audition that initially he’s a mite standoffish. That soon changes, though, when it becomes obvious from his stares and steamy attitude that he finds the girl extremely attractive. (He can’t even take his eyes off her when she’s in the audience at one of his concerts.) Eventually even Megan, not the most perceptive of people, notices the heat between them. Moreover, when he prods Sophie to introduce herself to his class by performing a little something on the piano, she responds with an incredibly accomplished take on Chopin’s Ballade No. 2 that leaves him gaping in disbelief. Meanwhile Lauren’s wolfish ex-boyfriend Aaron (Matthew Daddario) makes a play for Sophie, stoking Lauren’s jealousy.
All this is happening against the backdrop of a suburban society where, as we’re told offhandedly at a neighborhood get-together, everybody seems to be divorced or filing for one. The obvious point is that Keith and Megan’s marriage is on thin ice, too, as—it becomes all too apparent—is Lauren’s fragile psychological state. The tension, such as it is, lies in whether Keith’s growing obsession will escalate beyond an occasional touch of hands, and whether Megan will figure out what’s going on. The one certitude is that at some point in the narrative that cookie-jar collection is far too inviting a target to emerge unscathed. In that respect Doremus follows Chekhov’s dictum that if you introduce a rifle in the first chapter it has to be fired by the time the curtain falls. But that’s just one of the flourishes that the script brings by the close.
The cast certainly throws itself into the material. Pearce is all brooding understatement and Ryan nervously observant energy, while Davis does nicely with the rather stereotypical role of a teen on the verge of melting down. And Jones, who it up “Like Crazy,” again serves well as the dramatic catalyst, though this time around the role is less showy, depending as it does on enigmatic motives and reactive moments. On the technical side, cinematographer John Guleserian contributes some striking widescreen images, though the handheld style, even though more controlled than it often is still gets jumpy at times, while Jonathan Alberts’ editing is mostly effective, though sometimes a sequence drags a bit. Dustin Halloran’s score, with classical touches for piano and cello, gives a lushness to the proceedings that at first seems against the grain but ultimately fits.
One appreciates the nuance and subtlety that Doremus fitfully brings to “Breathe In,” but not the melodrama he too often indulges in. By the close the breathing has become, shall we say, more than a little labored.