At only 31 years of age, director Drake Doremus already has four features under his belt. He has proven himself to be a prolific young American filmmaker. His 2011 effort Like Crazy, unseen by me, made a minor splash as a romance that supposedly didn't condescend to its youth demographic and presented young characters who were smarter and more layered than the usual Nicholas Sparks dreck that the Hollywood factory plops out twice a year.
Breathe In is my introduction to Doremus' work and I was surprised at how mature, tightly controlled and somber his directing could be at such an early age. His patient approach to letting the story and the characters breathe (No pun intended) while resisting the urge to prove himself as a self-serving wunderkind director extraordinaire the way a lot of his contemporaries do reminds one of the assured approach of a seasoned professional. With the right material, this guy can turn into one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation.
Unfortunately this screenplay, co-written by Doremus and Ben York Jones, is not the right material. On the surface, the story of a hot foreign exchange student seducing the patriarch of a boring suburban family sounds like yet another sequel to a sleazy franchise like Poison Ivy. Although the material is nowhere near as sexually exploitative, every single story beat within the predictable structure of such a sub-genre is on display here.
Breathe In is reminiscent of one of those sexy European art films that deal with the deconstruction of the nuclear family via the entrance of a young sexpot. If it was made in the 80s as a French production, it would have been mandatory for Sophie Marceau to star in it.
Alas, the year is 2014 and that role goes to Felicity Jones, also from Like Crazy. Jones plays Sophie, an 18-year-old English piano player who shacks up with frustrated music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce), his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) and their also 18-year-old daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) at an idyllic suburb an hour away from New York City.
At first, Sophie is curiously reserved towards everyone, but the passion for classical music she shares with Keith brings her out of her shell, perhaps a bit too much for Megan and Lauren's liking. As a romantic relationship brews between Keith and Sophie, Keith's family structure starts to crumble.
The story of Breathe In is entirely too predictable up until the very end, where a well-placed cliché deus ex machina accident during the third act conveniently resolves all conflict. When writers shamelessly still use the same tricks to get themselves into an easy climax, I always wonder, doesn't anyone during pre-production, production or post-production tell the director that the same finale has been done a million times already?
What elevates the material and stops Breathe In from becoming wholly forgettable are the excellent performances, the superb cinematography that utilizes a handheld style without becoming too obnoxious, and Doremus' calm and controlled direction. Most of the emotional conflict in the film arises through certain glances the characters give to each other during seemingly mundane conversations in social settings.
The dialogue in these scenes consists of characters talking about unimportant, everyday occurrences but the performances really sell the troubles bubbling underneath. In this case, having excellent performance like Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan really helps Doremus' vision.
The 1080p transfer is devoid of any noticeable video noise and is quite beautiful to look at. The somber fall colors of the New York suburb are captured perfectly. This is a film that showcases a lot of hand-held camera work and jump cuts (Although not as narcissistic as Lars von Trier's approach) and the transfer keeps up with this style really well. The technical details on the film's IMDB page state that the film was shot using digital cameras. In that sense, the filmmakers managed to capture a very film-like look.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio transfer is very clean and shows a surprising amount of depth. Breathe In is a drama, which usually means a lack of presence for the surround channels. However, music plays an important role in the story and anytime Sophia plays the piano or Keith loses himself on his Cello, the speakers come to life and the viewing room becomes enveloped by the serenity of the music that's being performed. Obviously, a lot of work went into the sound mix during these scenes.
The Blu-Ray box doesn't advertise any special features but there are a couple of brief docs on hand here.
The Making of Breathe In: This is a typical 10-minute EPK where the actors talk about Doremus' natural directing methods.
Q&A with Drake Doremus: A very short 3-minute featurette where Doremus mostly talks about how Felicity Jones is his new muse.
A trailer for the film is also included.
Breathe In is a competent and insightful romance/drama that's leaps and bounds better than a lot of tired Hollywood romances that are released every year. It wraps excellent performances and a surprisingly mature direction around a screenplay that's unfortunately too predictable. Regardless, it's still worth a look if you're a fan of the genre.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, Beyazperde.com, and Bitch Magazine.