(This review originally appeared at Take One)
Drake Doremus’ BREATHE IN was the Opening Night film at the 67th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF). Guy Pearce plays Keith, a rather unsympathetic high school teacher who’s haunted by what he perceives as a closing-down of opportunities due to lost youth.
Into his seemingly comfortable world in Westchester, New York comes Berkshire exchange student Lauren (Felicity Jones), whose presence soon causes upheavals in the lives of Keith’s family. Dissatisfied with life, Keith seeking to recapture a sense of possibility through a relationship with Sophie which feels genuine, if somewhat familiar. The longing for the past, the clinging to tiny past glories and the anxiety at the fact they’ve become ‘normal’ are all subjects we’ve seen before. The ‘foibles of a middle-aged white man of privilege’ isn’t exactly a plot of any particular interest or novelty, but here all the characters apart from Keith seem aware of this; his growing attraction to the much-younger Sophie watched with weary resignation by his wife and daughter.
Sophie is a pouting, sullen 18 year-old whose lingering stares and faux-meaningful conversation seem almost tailor-made to indulge Keith’s vanity and sense of entitlement. Though unlikeable as a character, Sophie’s young age makes her behaviour more excusable than Keith’s, and there are hints at further depth to her character. The entitlement and immaturity she shares with Keith is captured effectively in the moving-in scene. While Keith is looking through Sophie’s suitcase, she cycles through the photographs on Keith’s camera, looking at pictures of his daughter and her new room-mate, Lauren. But Keith cannot recognise this emotional immaturity in himself or in Sophie, seeing her as wise beyond her years, and welcoming her attentions as a convenient antidote to his self-pity and lack of inertia.
Although Amy Ryan is well cast as Megan, she isn’t given too much to do beyond playing the clichéd sensible, mature wife to Guy Pearce’s self-obsessed husband – but now and again there are glimpses of an endearing and complex character that’s more interesting than the script allows her to be. Keith repeatedly snipes at Megan, complaining that he doesn’t enjoy his job; and yet he only seems alive and animated when he’s teaching. In music class, his petulant, lupine banality finally gives way to genuine warmth and humour.
The couple’s well-adjusted, outgoing daughter Lauren (played with subtlety and nuance by Mackenzie Davis) is on the cusp of turning eighteen, and having introduced Sophie to her circle of friends, what seems like a healthy and realistic portrayal of teen life begins to edge its way towards soapy melodrama. Childish lies and school corridor sneering (not to mention the predictable results of one signposted bout of teenage boozing) almost transport Lauren into a different genre of film altogether, and one her character isn’t equipped to deal with; these teen movie scenes seeming rather at odds with the measured tone of the rest of the film.
BREATHE IN looks and sounds tastefully inoffensive, the handsome autumn palette and pleasant background sounds of nature refusing to intrude on the predictably unfolding narrative. The performances are universally strong, and the actors make you care about the characters for the most part. The female cast especially are compelling and interesting, to the extent that it’s a shame the focus wasn’t more on them, and less on Guy Pearce’s Keith. Though it’s not treading any new ground, Drake Doremus’ film is an effective portrayal of an emotionally weak, self-involved man who has yet to realise that compromise and selflessness are important in maintaining adult relationships.