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Review: ‘Breathe’ builds on emotional terror inflicted by, and on, teenage girls

Melanie Laurent attends a special screening of "Breathe," in New York.

Melanie Laurent attends a special screening of “Breathe,” in New York.

(Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Sarah slinks in with a kiss, oozing sex appeal and adventure in a pair of perfect Levi’s cutoffs. With a pouty, languid sensuality, saturated in cigarette smoke, she’s mesmerizing. Is there anything more intoxicating —or more dangerous — than the undivided attention of a Cool Girl?

In Mélanie Laurent’s second feature film, “Breathe,” adapted from a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, there most definitely is not.

The drunken high of friendship with Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is chased with a nasty, violent hangover, as we discover. New in school, she quickly befriends sweet naif Charlie (Joséphine Japy). With her parents going through a complicated breakup, Charlie is happy for the affection from her wild new friend, who showers her with hugs, secrets and makeovers, until suddenly she doesn’t. Sarah runs hot and cold, but more than that, she’s a skilled manipulator of people, something that we find out is a survival tactic.

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Laurent deftly illustrates the sheer psychological brutality that teenage girls can inflict on each other, the magic and the terror of friendships like this. Her camera takes a realistic approach: natural light with characters situated in landscapes. But it has its own consciousness, catching a silent reaction or drifting to reveal information to the audience. The sound design is superb, a subjective treatment of Charlie’s experience — ragged gasps of breath, ears ringing, chatter fading.

The entire piece is precisely woven together, from script to performance to execution, and the result is a chilling study of emotional annihilation and its aftermath.

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“Breathe.”

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No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West L.A.; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena.

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