There is an entire genre of films in which a sultry stranger enters a family and upsets everyone by showing them their truth. One of the best examples is Pasolini’s Teorama; one of the best guilty pleasures is Poison Ivy. Drake Doremus’ Breathe In falls squarely in the middle of the crowded field. It’s a soggy family drama about Keith (Guy Pearce) and Megan (Amy Ryan) Reynolds who allow sexy, 18 year-old British exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones, from Doremus’ previous feature Like Crazy) to live with them and their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) for the semester.
Despite smiling portraits, the Reynolds’ are a family slightly adrift. Megan is kind of a domineering matriarch, Keith is passive and unhappy as a cellist who works as a music teacher, and Lauren is a typically spoiled and insecure high schooler. The idea of having a guest enter this dynamic may have been a way to bring everyone closer together, but of course, Sophie’s presence drives everyone apart.
Breathe In spends an hour setting up its central conceit. Through an elliptical, episodic narrative, Keith exchanges a series of longing glances with Sophie. There is some sexual tension percolating between them, but it reaches a kind of climax when the pair is alone together during a rainstorm. They have a heart to heart over some beers (teenage drinking is plentiful here), and she talks about having choices and freedom. He claims she does not seem to be as young as she actually is. Although they discuss boundaries and structure, the married man and the much younger siren cannot resist the chance to canoodle at the town reservoir one afternoon. Of course, Lauren unexpectedly sees them, setting a series of consequences in motion.
This may be revealing too much about what happens in Breathe In, but it is pretty much all that happens in Breathe In. The repercussions of this inappropriate affair play out in a series of melodramatic events that are given even more ponderous weight by Doremus’ insistence on having Keith’s orchestra performance provide the heavy music as bad behavior and breakdowns play out on screen.
There is very little subtlety on display here. Even at a barbeque, Keith is practically goaded by his friend Peter (an uncredited Kyle MacLachlan) to sleep with Sophie. And this would be fine if the film was a ripe piece of high camp, but it plays out so seriously it is stifling.
Sophie is so attractive Lauren’s would-be boyfriend Aaron (Matthew Daddario), conspires to go out with her. When Sophie resists Aaron’s romantic attentions, he tells everyone at school they slept together. While Breathe In deserves credit for raising the point that Sophie is branded a slut in the teen world, she is still an active seducer of Keith. This may be the “choice” Sophie talks about in a key scene, but it still feels somewhat creepy, however convincing Jones’ portrayal is.
The wiry Pearce plays Keith all wound-up, which works surprisingly well here, but Ryan is given a thankless role, and Davis is only satisfactory as Lauren.
Breathe In is all about secrets and lies, but it all feels terribly superficial.
Breathe In opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.