Unhappily married man falls for beautiful woman half his age whom he believes will free him from his imaginary prison: this plot has been done so many times, very rarely with any creativity or passion, and so Drake Doremus' latest addition to the anthology, Breathe In, doesn't inspire much excitement at first glance. But Doremus successfully sidesteps the staple cliches of the infidelity drama and has crafted an oddly delicate, taut, and surgical film that captivates and succeeds in spite of a few minor plot conveniences.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is an ex-guitarist whose passions and hobbies have been stifled in favor of a suffocating teaching job and a quiet home life in a New York suburb with wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis, a real find). During Lauren's senior year of high school, the family hosts pleasant but guarded exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones), whose presence chips away at an evidently already fragile marriage and Keith's resentfully upheld responsibilities.
Doremus' breakthrough picture Like Crazy (also starring Jones) drew its fair share of detractors for its unconvincing plot developments and shockingly naive characters. He still doesn't have a complete handle on how to let plots develop organically, and Keith and Sophie are destructive and weak-willed if not naive, but Doremus is clearly growing as a writer: the bumps are less jarring, the characters more understandable. Breathe In is expertly precise and poetically delicate: sensational arguments and wild sex scenes are excluded in favor of subtle tremors in relationship dynamics and a tentative, genuine mental connection between the two leads. A plot line that lends itself easily to melodrama is instead executed with restraint and grace: Keith and Sophie don't even kiss until over an hour into the film and instead grow closer through fleeting glances, shared passions, mutual desires to break free, and support and curiosity that neither have received from another person in a very long time. Refreshingly, for once, it's not at all about sex - it is sensual, but the leads connect on a profound, intimate level rather than a physical one and, strangely enough, there are times when you can't help but want them to be together.
Pearce gives his best performance in years here as vulnerable and secretly needy Keith; he perfectly captures the crushing regret and childish idealism of a midlife crisis, and his slow unraveling at Sophie's touch is beautiful to watch. Jones, for the third year in a row, deserves some serious attention for her work here - Sophie is a stereotypical faux-intellectual, confident she sees all and knows all, and Jones retains that adolescent conceit while imbuing her with a deep, affecting loneliness and pain and a quiet but steely veneer masking it from the world. It's less showy, but more intricate and adult than her work in Like Crazy. Mackenzie Davis' first major movie role is pretty demanding and full of pitfalls, yet she creates the most sympathetic character in the film. Amy Ryan unfortunately isn't given much to do, and occasionally her character feels uncomfortable villainized, but she gives Jones a look at the end of the film that says much more than a 10- minute screaming scene ever could and confirms that she is one of the most insightful and communicative actresses around. There's not much dialogue in the film, and most of it is layered with subtext rather than explicitly revealing, so a great deal of responsibility falls on the cast's shoulders, and they more than carry their weight.
Critics of Like Crazy probably won't be won over by Breathe In as in terms of direction, style and writing it follows many of the same formulas - a simple piano score, natural and unaffected cinematography, many close-ups and scenes where nothing at all is communicated verbally. The characters are less likable this time, and while they are more fleshed out and therefore easier to relate to, it's difficult to find someone to root for. But Doremus is maturing: there's less reliance on plot contrivances to move the story along, and instead he lets the tiny fissures, the soundless sensuality, and the growing tension drive the film to its explosive and agonizing finale. There is some great character- and dynamic-building here, and once Doremus has a better grasp of storytelling, he will really be a force to be reckoned with.