Romantic attraction, popular mythology notwithstanding, is not necessarily destiny, and the desire two people feel for each other can, under the wrong circumstances, cause chaos as often as contentment. Not every love should dare to speak its name, not even close.
As directed and co-written by Drake Doremus, the exquisitely calibrated “Breathe In” explores such a fraught mutual passion with honesty, intimacy and complete emotional involvement. Every moment between stars Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones feels so much like an explosion about to go off that viewers may hesitate to so much as take a breath at the wrong time for fear of disturbing the film’s delicate equilibrium.
Doremus and Jones (who is coming off a major success in Ralph Fiennes’ “The Invisible Woman”) have worked together before on “Like Crazy,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance a few years back.
This new collaboration, the story of what happens between a British high school exchange student and the father in her host American family, shares with its predecessor the director’s gift for creating piercing reality that verges on being too intimate to comfortably watch.
Part of that intensity comes from Doremus’ quasi-improvisational working method that both echoes and departs from the way British director Mike Leigh operates. Collaborating with co-writer Ben York Jones, Doremus begins with a detailed outline that runs to multiple pages for each scene. Then comes a rehearsal period and an extended on-set process that results in characters and situations that feel fully lived in instead of merely portrayed.
For this technique to succeed, it’s essential to have actors able to effectively convey the necessary emotions, and “Breathe In” has that across the board. Jones and Pearce make the yearning between their characters palpable, Mackenzie Davis is convincing as the host family’s high school age daughter, and the always expert Amy Ryan brings life to what could have been a thankless role as wife and mother.
We meet husband and father Keith Reynolds (Pearce) sitting alone in his quiet home office in a tranquil upstate New York town, 90 minutes and a cultural divide away from Manhattan. Keith, his wife, Megan (Ryan), and their daughter, Lauren (Davis), seem happy and everything looks as it should, but even in these opening minutes we sense a man who hasn’t made his peace with where he is in his life.
After glancing briefly at a letter indicating he’s the music teacher at the local high school, Keith focuses wistfully on old photographs of the younger version of himself in a rock band called the Unconscious Brothers. While the grounded Megan seems happy with the choices the couple made, leaving a feckless New York life for suburbs and family, Keith, a jeans and flannel shirt kind of guy, remains troubled by that decision.
Though no longer a rock guitarist, Keith is still a working musician. In fact, he’s a good enough classical cellist to be up for a permanent job in a Manhattan-based symphony orchestra. Megan assumes he’ll turn the job down if he gets it, but Keith, who misses the artistic life and the beat of the city, is not so sure.
With all this as backdrop, the family goes to the airport to meet Sophie Williams (Jones), the British exchange student. While daughter Lauren has worried that the new kid would cramp her style, 18-year-old Sophie is not at all what anyone expects. Beautiful, sophisticated and self-possessed, she turns out to be an accomplished classical pianist who’s been playing since she was a small child but is now thinking of giving it up.
Aided by their common passion for music, the attraction between Keith and Sophie soon kicks in, and “Breathe In” takes pains to emphasize that this is not the story of a predatory male or a scheming Jezebel but rather of a fatal mutuality of interest.
For even though neither party is looking for this, a variety of factors seems to be pushing them together, including the fact that both are feeling at loose ends in their creative lives. Because Sophie is more mature than her classmates and Keith is at the opposite ends of the adult spectrum, the age gap between them feels smaller than it might. Yet both of them work at tamping down what they’re feeling because the disruptive, not to say catastrophic, nature of the consequences are clear to everyone.
While “Breathe In” moves toward its sure-footed conclusion, it is especially good at the small moments between Sophie and Keith, tiny but freighted interactions that only they and the voyeuristic camera notice. Small moments that can end up changing lives.
MPAA rating: R, for some language
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In limited release