When French actress Melanie Laurent ("Inglourious Basterds," "Beginners") was 17, she was blown away by Anne-Sophie Brasme's young adult novel "Breathe," which examined the dark side of friendship between two high school girls.
"The author was 17 too," said Laurent, in a recent phone interview from New York. "She was kind of like the new Françoise Sagan in France. It was really hard for her to write another book. I think she had too much pressure, but at that moment she was very successful."
So successful that everyone wanted to make a movie out of the story of the studious teenager Charlie, whose friendship with the wild, charismatic Sarah spirals into jealousy and obsession.
"I called her and spoke to her and told her about my feelings," said Laurent, who made her feature debut at age 16 in the Gerard Depardieu film "The Bridge" and studied filmmaking in high school.
Brasme, she noted, said, "Oh, my god, you have to do [the film]. We are the same age. We are on the same page. You are the only one to understand my book." All the other directors older than her wanted to make a sexual relationship movie.
So Laurent "arrived in front of producers" in hopes of making the film.
"But nobody trusted me," she said. "I am so glad they didn't. I needed to make short movies. I'm glad I directed my first feature [2011's 'The Adopted']. If I did 'Breathe' years ago, I would have been doing a bad movie."
Most critics have agreed that Laurent has made a very good adaptation of "Breathe," which opens Friday in Los Angeles. The film is at 89% fresh on rottentomatoes.com, and both of the film's young stars received César Awards nominations for their performances.
Josephine Japy stars as Charlie, a pretty, bright high school senior who has been dealing with the recent estrangement of her squabbling parents. Enter Sarah (Lou de Laage), a transfer student who is wild, confident and free. Sarah weaves grand tales of her mother and their colorful life. Soon Charlie and Sarah become inseparable. But their friendship takes an unsettling turn, especially after Charlie learns Sarah is harboring a dark secret.
Laurent identified with Charlie when she first read the book. And in a way, she still does.
"Trust me, I have met so many Sarahs," said Laurent, 32. "And sometimes these Sarahs" have been "directors, lovers and friends."
Laurent doesn't see "Breathe" as a typical YA movie because "it's a really universal subject." While writing the script with Julien Lambroschini, she talked to many women in their 50s and 60s who saw themselves in Charlie.
"They were saying, 'Oh, my god, it feels like my husband. It is the relationship between my terrible husband. He was evil, and I left him after 20 years of a nightmare. I should have killed him.'"
As much as she loved the novel, she and Lambroschini "kind of changed" from the book. "I kept the name and kept the tension."
In the novel, Laurent noted, "Charlie is not pretty. She is rejected in high school. I wanted to [have] a beautiful young girl, who has everything going for her, and suddenly she meets someone not stronger, not more beautiful, but more complex and more crazy. She's more rock 'n' roll."
Laurent shifted the story from Paris to a small French town where "you have had the same friends you have had since forever."
She also narrowed the time frame. "In the book it was four years of back and forth and torture," she said. "It was too long [for a movie]."
Now the action takes place over eight months during their senior year in high school.
"I loved the idea of making it eight months just before going off to university," she said. "Before our life is going to change forever and you are going to finally grow up."
Laurent also wanted to explore childhood and mothers in "Breathe."
"It is the story of two lost girls who have not had real love," she said. "So they have been raised in an atmosphere where, of course, everything is messed up."
She hopes audiences will question whether Sarah is really the villain. "Or is it Charlie, who just accepts so many things? I really wanted to put that question of maybe Charlie is a little bit creepy too."