Drake Doremus knows how to break some hearts. His last film Like Crazy went home with the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and also a slew of adoring supporters. Doremus proved his skill at depicting the delicacy of young love. Expectations for Breath In this year at the festival were high.
Waiting outside the Eccles Theater, the largest screening venue at the festival, you would think people were packing in to see the forthcoming of Led Zeppelin. There was a huge crowd of people holding their premiere tickets high, desperate to get in to see the film, and I was one of them. Luckily, I snagged a second row seat. This time around, Doremus tackles that adolescent love he captures so well, but also the more mature love found in marriage.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is a high school piano teacher and long-time aspiring musician. He has a beautiful wife, Megan (Amy Ryan) and daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). They live happily outside of Manhattan in a lovely Victorian home. They seem picture perfect. But Keith is approaching a mid-life crisis of sorts. Coupled with his desire to give up teaching, an exchange student from Berkshire comes to live with the Reynolds. Sophie (Felicity Jones) breathes a new energy into the home with her quiet elegance. She’s also a piano player, which Keith quickly learns is an understatement. She’s a virtuoso.
Lauren welcomes Sophie into her high school world of booze and boys, introducing her to a boy named Aaron (Matthew Daddario) that she slept with a while back. Now they’re “just friends.” Sophie is unfazed by all the teenagers, even though Aaron is clearly interested. Her attention is elsewhere: Keith. He’s also drawn to Sophie, entranced by her musical talents and quiet wisdom. A part of her senses his melancholy plea to be young and free again.
From the beginning, we know something is budding. We’re asked to be patient and the tension is torturous, in the best of ways. We long for Sophie and Keith to have a moment alone. When they finally do, our instincts were correct. Even the slightest touch of his finger to her palm becomes sensual. But Doremus keeps anything from feeling lustful. Trampling into that territory would make the film about something entirely different. Many stories have been told about married men having affairs with younger women, but in Breath In, their love proves more intellectual.
Although Sophie and Keith are indeed an exception to their stereotypes, they still find a hard time escaping their cookie-cutter plot line. Soon enough the story befalls its expected consequences. Because we’re invested in the characters, including Keith’s relationship with his wife and daughter, we wince to see them suffer ill fates. But the roller coaster isn’t as exciting as it was in Like Crazy. We know the story from the moment Sophie unpacks her trunk and Keith looks into her eyes. Trouble.
But the predictability of the story is redeemed by Doremus’ skill with both silence and sound alike. The music in the film is intentionally its own character, with a mesmerizing score by Dustin O’Halloran. When Sophie and Keith don’t have words for their feelings, the music steps in and communicates in their behalf. Doremus discussed at the premiere’s Q&A that he and co-writer Ben York Jones even wrote for the silence in the script. They outlined the beats, giving the actors a roadmap for their purely physical improvisation. This is perhaps the best part of Breathe In. Jones and Pearce are so in-tune with their instincts and desires that watching them connect silently makes our heartbeats quicken. Davis is also on-point and juxtaposes Jones’ calm maturity with her infantile, but still honest energy. Sometimes we feel more pain for her when she experiences a crush’s rejection than during the disintegration of Keith’s marriage. It’s an imbalance in the film that Doremus’ future work will surely evolve to avoid.