After exploring the complications of young love in his Sundance champ Like Crazy, director Drake Doremus returns to the festival with another relationship drama, Breathe In, this time about the affair between a married man and a teenaged girl. Guy Pearce turns in a reserved performance as Keith, a former musician and dissatisfied family man longing to leave his job as a high school music teacher and return to the exciting life he had before he and his wife (Amy Ryan) left New York City for a quiet, suburban existence. Enter Sophie (Felicity Jones), an 18-year-old British foreign exchange student who joins Keith, his wife, and their teen daughter for a semester in the United States. There's a nearly instantaneous attraction between Keith and the mysterious Sophie, and most of the film is a slow, steady burn toward the initiation of their affair, which plays out as more a chaste schoolyard romance than a passionate tryst. Still, the chemistry between Pearce and Jones is electric; scenes between the two that are light on dialogue and heavy on meaningful glances are striking, subtly conveying the tension building between the two characters from their first moments on screen together.
But while Doremus initially lays out an intriguing study of suburban discord, the film's third act strains under the weight of a wearying predictability. Things are too black and white, when the situation presented calls for more shades of gray. Keith's wife is too conveniently unlikable, his family life too conveniently mundane, and Sophie too conveniently mature, even her age standing as a too-easy cop-out of dealing with the many moral implications of the tryst, which are generally glossed over in favor of focusing on the budding love story. But this isn't a love story, but the story of a midlife crisis, and it misses out on the opportunities of further exploring the motives of the characters which run deeper than mere attraction.
Concussion takes an intimate look at a 42-year-old housewife who decides to enter the world of prostitution after a blow to the head from one of her children's baseballs. Abby (Robin Weigert) shares a seemingly picturesque life in suburbia with her wife, Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), but the blow shifts something in her mind, pushing her to the sudden realization that she may want something more, or at least something different, out of life. That something different turns out to be first an awkward rendezvous with a strung-out hooker, but later leads to a hook up with a high-class escort suggested to her by her business associate, Justin (Jonathan Tchaikovsky), who also moonlights as a pimp for an expensive call-girl service. When Justin later informs Abby that the escort gave her top marks in the bedroom, even suggesting that she start her own business, the wife and mother decides to give the profession a try. Abby discovers that she's not only good at what she does, but can make thousands of dollars doing it, and soon she must contend with juggling her secret life with the one she's trying to run away from.
First-time writer-director Stacie Passon approaches the subject matter provocatively though never exploitatively, shooting the no-holds-barred sex scenes intimately, rather than with the sole aim of titillation. The film suffers slightly by failing to paint a better picture of the dynamics between Abby and Kate, or provide some context as to what type of person Abby was before her concussion and sudden awakening. Still, Weigert gives an amazingly raw performance in the role, which demands her to be both physically and emotionally vulnerable. One scene in particular where Abby is roughed up by a client is both disturbing and fascinating, serving as the culmination of her fears and desires played out with brutal honesty. By the end of the film, it's unclear whether Abby's concussion was the cause in her sudden shift, or whether it was an inevitability, something gestating in her from long before. That uncertainty is where the true power of the film lies.
The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 17—27.