In an early scene from Drake Doremus’s Breathe In, sullen British exchange student Sophie Williams (Felicity Jones) rejects an offer to socialize with her American classmates, opting instead to stay in for the night with a Raymond Carver book. It’s an unfortunate author to name-drop, as it only magnifies the film’s deficiencies by comparison: Carver, with his gift for tough, concise, morally complex storytelling, could build a great short story out of themes of indecisiveness and suppressed desire, whereas Doremus spins those same topics into a bloated, maudlin wish-fulfillment fantasy. Breathe In masquerades as a sensitive character study, seemingly high-brow because it’s so low-key, but underneath that veneer is an inert, thinly plotted melodrama premised on trite characterizations that would be offensive if they weren’t so absurd.
Sophie is played by Jones not as an actual girl, but as a masturbatory archetype: a classic English rose who’s soft-spoken and musically gifted, preternaturally mature, and—surprise!—newly 18 years old. This can only mean trouble for Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce), the creatively frustrated music teacher who, along with his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), has agreed to house Sophie for her semester abroad in rainy New York suburbia. Keith and Sophie’s attraction to each other is immediate but extremely slow-burning, unfolding mostly in moony sequences of one staring at the other through windows or door frames, or in one particularly egregious sequence across a concert venue mid-orchestral performance. More than half the film’s running time is spent watching the two in orbit, dancing closer and closer to each other, and while the filmmakers’ restraint (and Jones and Pearce’s refusal to chew scenery) is commendable, the repetitiveness of these scenes is more stupefying than heart-swelling.
Instead of unearthing the real people propelling its narrative, Breathe In relies on stock types: the husband in search of his lost youth, the ignored and sexless wife, the beautiful and troubled young muse. Sophie’s arrival is preceded by a Hallmark-card montage of the Reynolds family laughing at the dinner table, scrap-booking, even jovially playing Jenga together. Keith’s man-child angst is established by scenes of him gloomily poring over old photos of his rock-star days or huffing over his wife’s gentle mocking of his “hobby” as a symphony cellist (his two-dimensional ennui is further reinforced by his all-beige-flannel wardrobe). His wife, by contrast, isn’t afforded much of a personality at all; she exists only relative to other characters, suspicious of her husband, protective of her daughter, and making feeble attempts at hospitality to her new ward.
Alternately bubbly, determined, petulant, and irate, Davis does find unexpected layers in her underwritten role, operating in the same tenor of naturalism as the other performers without resorting to the underplayed moodiness that typifies Pearce and Jones’s work. Also of note, Breathe In deftly incorporates music into its mise-en-scène, using Sophie’s youthfully violent approach to the piano and Keith’s emotive cello performances as touchstones for a playful soundtrack. Unfortunately, beyond these few inspired touches, the film is a mostly lifeless affair, lacking the passion its ill-matched lovers supposedly feel for each other. It presents themes of lust and irresponsibility, but never probes them deeply. It valorizes its main characters’ angst, but never questions, evaluates, or complicates it in any compelling way.