A moment of comic relief transpires a third of the way into Drake Doremus’ third feature, Breathe In, when the ever-affable Kyle McLachlan invites his friends over for a barbeque and seizes the opportunity to unsubtly leer over their accompanying exchange student. Behave, Agent Cooper!
McLachlan’s Peter is a mere bit-player, though; his guests are Guy Pearce’s Keith Reynolds, wife Megan (Amy Ryan), their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) and the British teenager Sophie, played by rising British star Felicity Jones. McLachlan’s fondness for the young beauty sunbathing across the pool is nothing if not a tempting reminder to Keith, who has himself begun to regard the young girl as something of a kindred spirit.
Sophie is as much a musically gifted introvert as Keith, yet the man is bonded for better or worse to an oblivious wife, and a daughter whose interest in swimming holds no personal appeal to him. Doremus uses McLachlan as a perfunctory catalyst, a devil on the shoulder of the unyielding Keith, a facile dramatic keynote that exists purely to provide narrative relevance to the main character’s dilemma. Every other cherry-picked moment we witness of Keith’s life pertains to the struggle over remaining faithful to his wife or giving in to his true feelings. Observe Sophie commanding a glorious piano rendition out of nowhere, confirming her wondrousness in the besotted host’s eyes.
The film’s title implies a knot of anxiety loosened by measured breathing. Felicity enters Keith’s office and instructs him to tense his muscles, release them, breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth, which the man does to resulting satisfaction. Doremus exaggerates the fleeting advice into a sensual ritual, focused on the small movements of Pearce’s head and neck. Indeed, the director is especially concerned with the texture of his actors’ faces, namely Pearce, whose immaculate facial hair does little to mask his readable frailties, his inner exhaustion. At other times, the camera situates itself behind the actors, knowingly avoiding the sight of their eyes, too easy a clue for the viewer to gauge their immediate responses.
Unforunately, the intimacy the film aspires to evoke is never as palpable as it should be. Perhaps this is in part to the overblown coincidences; the easily converging paths that see a set of characters collide at precisely the right place at the right time.
Or maybe it’s because Doremus believes these heightened emotional performances and extraordinarily implausible circumstances alone constitute vitally important drama. The hard work is left to Pearce and Jones, whose chemistry is the foundation upon which the film lives or dies. Thankfully, there is a grain of felt connection between the characters, a bond forbidden yet almost worth sympathising with because of its status as a metaphorical light in the film’s morose greyness.
These able thespians try their hardest, though the direction that shapes the narrative around their tryst does them no favours. Doremus foregoes a challenge by plumping for dreary piano melodies to alternately ramp up the drama and bring it to a crawl. On a visual sense, there’s nothing more than handheld cameras and bleak lighting to convince of this dreary surrounding.
There are far more convincing malaises to be found in cinema, ones that invite a spectator into the shared sense of desolation through a thorough, expressive mise-en-scene. Doremus’ drab hand doesn’t go nearly far enough. While it’s plain to see that Keith is deluded into thinking he is young and Sophie is mature, enough for the stars to align beyond boundaries of the ‘norm’, the insight more or less ends there. The conundrum is hardly explored further than what we see and feel through crestfallen melodrama. These are two fairly commendable turns from Pearce and Jones, though do they alone suffice for the abject misery they conjure? None of this is particularly helpful.