Film Review: Breathe In

Older married teacher falls hard for comely young student. It's a perennial premise, which has been done so much better than this movie devoid of sexiness or gripping drama.

High-minded filmmakers have traditionally gone in for classical music to serve as emotion-stirring backgrounds for intense stories about thwarted love. Warner Bros. in the 1940s specialized in this, with lush melodramas like The Great Lie, Deception and Humoresque, filled with big diva emotions on the part of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, as well as lushly welling string sections and thunderous piano pounding. And then there was the immortally maudlin Brief Encounter, fully drenched in Rachmaninoff. Now comes Breathe In, which, although scaled somewhat smaller to suit modern indie requirements, is no less adamant about its would-be overwhelming emotional intent.

The Reynolds family, living in an idyllic, sylvan township just outside Manhattan, is somewhat disrupted by the arrival of a British exchange student, Sophie (Felicity Jones). As she is pretty, bright and charming, she is initially a welcome diversion from the staid, if not stifling, life of the Reynolds clan: Keith (Guy Pearce), who has a dead-end job teaching high-school music; his very domestic wife Megan (Amy Ryan), and their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), a star swimmer at the school. But Sophie is a highly nubile creature of mystery, which begins to have an unsettling effect on her temporary family, particularly Keith. He succumbs to her when she astonishes him with a virtuosic piano demonstration, although she has hitherto been weirdly reluctant to display her gift, and that old May-September problem rears its disturbing head.

The desaturated palette of the visuals here, plus the unrelievedly fraught yet morose atmosphere and performances and, of course, that music are the tools writer-director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) uses to create this desperate-to-be-memorable coming-of-age tale. It's a pity that so much deadly serious effort has gone into something that isn't very original or exciting in the first place. The characters quiver with sensitivity, but none of them has much real depth or interest. It's all too telling that about the only distinctive personality trait Doremus can come up with for Ryan, playing the 250,000th Wronged Wife in cinema, is a penchant for collecting antique cookie jars. She's also something of an unyielding harridan when it comes to Keith's burning desire to move back into the city and pursue a music career. (He subs for an orchestra in Manhattan, and also nostalgically recalls the rock band of his youth, before marriage and rearing  family robbed him of that dream.)

It's not that Pearce isn't good at this “Now is the winter of my discontented life” stuff; it's just hard to feel any real compassion for such a wan, worried guy. The almost painfully British Jones pouts prettily but doesn't imbue Sophie with enough innate charisma to make you truly understand Keith's welling obsession with her. The impoverished screenplay doesn't help matters, nor do Doremus' self-conscious directorial touches, like having the two of them moodily sitting on swings at twilight. Their chemistry is underwhelming, it takes a small eternity for the two of them to get together, and by the time they do, you may be blinking hard to stay awake. The lovely Davis, in a simpler, undeveloped role, manages to be far more appealing and natural, and gets the big dramatic number in the movie, when she spies the very careless Keith and Sophie quite foolishly trysting at a favorite teen hangout. Ryan, given a perfectly thankless role, is a mere mousy dramatic pawn in the scheme of things. Kyle McLachlan appears in a virtual cameo, as a randy, youth-appreciative friend of Keith's who seriously fantasizes about doing exactly what his assumedly more straight-laced buddy is doing.