“Breathe In”: Not quite what the foreign exchange student program had in mind

breathein

Drake Doremus’ “Breathe In” is certainly aptly named. There’s a lot of breathing in, and breathing out, and pausing, and meaningful glances exchanged between characters. Doremus (“Like Crazy”) likes to have lots of dramatic improvisation on set, but this is the first time I can remember seeing actors improvising non-verbally.

I liked “Like Crazy” a lot (I introduced Doremus and the film at a Sundance Film Festival USA event in Madison a couple of years ago), and thought the dramatic improv between Felicity Jones and Anton  Yelchin really gave you the sense that you were watching a real young couple, with their own secret understanding of each other. But in “Breathe In,” which played at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival and is now out on DVD, it doesn’t quite work. What’s intended to seem naturalistic instead feels “actorly.”

And the actors are all good. Guy Pearce, in a bit of a change-up for him, plays Keith, a high school music teacher in a tranquil upstate New York town. He’s seemingly living a happy life with a good job, big house, loving wife Megan (the always great Amy Ryan) and teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). But all is not as cheerful in it seems in the family photo session that opens the film — Keith is a gifted musician who misses his old pre-parenthood life playing in bands in New York City. He’s trying out to play cello in the city’s orchestra, but one wonders if even that will slake his thirst for something — different.

That something different comes in the form of Sophie (Jones), a British foreign exchange student who comes to live with the family for a semester. Sophie is a talented piano player, and she and Keith immediately bond over their love of music. And then, as you might expect, the bond goes much deeper. Doremus, who co-wrote the film with longtime collaborate Ben York Jones, seems to be trying to take a genre thriller plot (it’s basically “Poison Ivy”) and turn it into something realistic and authentic, like a Mike Leigh film.

“Breathe In” is undeniably beautiful to look at, with stunning images (like an underwater swimming pool shot looking upwards as rain spatters the surface) married to an evocative piano-driven soundtrack. And the actors seem to relish the roles that they’re given, the chance to convey meaning with expressions and reactions rather than expository dialogue.

But at the heart of it, there just doesn’t seem to be much there. The relationship between Keith and Sophie comes off as undercooked rather than mysterious, and Doremus’ improvisational style allows the characters to forever dance around what they mean to say. The female roles in the film seem underimagined — Ryan is just too good an actress to play a complacent wife, and while Jones is good in her roles, Sophie doesn’t amount to much more than manifestation of Keith’s desires. Compare this film to another film she did about a younger woman falling for an older man — Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman” — and you can see what real romantic complexity looks like.

Perhaps sensing this isn’t really going anywhere, Doremus suddenly ends the film with a crockery-smashing climax that feels forced. I admire Doremus’ way of making movies and would hate to see him abandon it for traditional mainstream filmmaking, but improvisation needs a stronger framework to build off of.

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