With a New York family in crisis, Drake Doremus’ Breathe In finds an unlikely villain in Felicity Jones in this intimate, genre-busting chamber piece.
The Food Of Love by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
From its opening scene of the Reynolds family lining up in their back garden for an annual portrait, Drake Doremus’ Breathe In is a dramatisation of his own art. Lauded at Sundance for his intimate snapshots of love in Like Crazy, Doremus has his own unique method of improvising with actors, enabling truthful performances from his cast, observed by an all-seeing camera. His aim is a kind of emotional truth, to recast Breathe In‘s rather familiar story of a young girl wheedling, seducing and ripping a family apart in a new light, both intimate and real. And like Breathe In‘s opening gambit, the actors’ performances are effortlessly natural, offering us a glimpse of the Reynolds family at their most unguarded and vulnerable. It’s a trust that’s otherwise only afforded to Sophie, a silent observer slowly drawn into their story. And one that’s all too easily abused.
The Reynolds family live in upstate New York. Keith (Guy Pearce) is a music teacher with a part-time job as a stand-in cellist for the New York Symphony Orchestra. His wife Megan (Amy Ryan) is a full-time mum, driving her family around and buying and selling cookie jars while daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), about to turn 18, is a swimming ace. Into this suburban American idyll steps Sophie (Felicity Jones), a British home-stay student and gifted pianist. Eager to find a place within her new family, she accompanies them to barbecues, swimming meets and recitals. But when Lauren’s one-time love interest Aaron makes a move on her, their friendship sours. But it’s with Keith though that Sophie bonds the most, talking music and youthful dreams of freedom and with an attraction that threatens to pull the Reynolds family apart.
Set in upstate New York, Breathe In is shaped by a divide between Manhattan and its suburbs. The Reynolds family lead a good little life – nice home, secure job and beautiful family. Precious but domestic, like a cookie jar. But lurking beneath this suburban normalcy, for Keith at least, lie dreams of a downtown apartment, a living scraped together as a musician, late-night cigarettes and freedom. And it’s a dream shared by Sophie, not quite the traditional siren leading another woman’s husband astray, but more a quiet piano-playing prodigy running away from the right path and in search of options. Despite living in the same house, it’s only through music that they connect – a secret intimacy achieved through performing and listening to each other play. And while Sophie is briefly dragged into Lauren’s love troubles, it’s with Keith that she starts cutting class in order to make out at the local reservoir.
It’s a fairly chaste relationship, for all we know not even going beyond a first kiss. And Doremus does well to keep it simmering unconsummated – we’re perhaps as unsure as them if it’s a sexual, musical or mental attraction that draws them together. But despite great performances from Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones, nimbly improvising backstories and creating characters, Keith and Sophie are never fully fleshed out, wisps of thought and desire not quite able to harden into drive or ambition. They are also let down by a somewhat heavy-handed production design (it’s bizarrely self-referential that Sophie should be reading Jane Eyre) and a script that ends up becoming lazily familiar, with a contrived final-reel tragedy needed to bring the family back together.
Like Sophie’s trunk decorated with mementos, the Reynolds family are retro lo-tech. Rather idealistically, they sit together as a family mailing out party invitations or playing Jenga, Keith listens to cassettes and reads (paper) books. And while Sophie may maintain qualms about going into the city with Aaron, her relationship with Keith seems too important to let social niceties get in the way. Their plans to hit the road together after Keith’s recital are a blow to the family’s old fashioned (but cherished) values of trust and loyalty – a break from the structure and harmony of the family into a lawless land of youthful freedom. Even their instruments – a piano and cello (replacing the violin in Tolstoy’s story of adulterous musicians in The Kreutzer Sonata) – while providing a musical escape hark back to the sensual nature of performance – a surrender to the moment that threatens their everyday lives.
From its opening and closing scenes, Drake Doremus’s Breathe In provides a narrative on how to act in front of the camera, the naturalness of the Reynolds family’s love for each other replaced with wounded hearts and forced smiles. At times it’s a little too hokey to achieve the freshness it deserves, and like its heroes Breathe In never quite manages to breach that final frontier of freedom, but it’s a tragedy of keeping up appearances in a minor key.
Breathe In is released on 19th July 2013 in the UK