Movies about fatal attractions between frustrated middle-aged men and the evocative Lolitas that cloud their vision and make them long for their youth are not uncommon. Breathe In, the first film from writer/director Drake Doremus since his Sundance breakthough Like Crazy, is something of a variation on this trope, in that there is hardly a single moment of sexual tension or eroticism. Other than a bit of touching and a chaste kiss, the older man and younger woman show almost no passion for each other. That would be fine if Breathe In wanted to be a restrained, languid romance, but this is not the case. Doremus shoots this film like an emotionally charged melodrama, with a rousing orchestral score playing atop images of rain, locked eyes and plates smashing.
The man in this story is Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce), a humble music teacher living in the New York countryside with a sweet wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and a secretly rebellious daughter, Lauren (That Awkward Moment’s Mackenzie Davis). In the film’s first scene, the Reynolds clan smiles for professional photos in their meticulously landscaped backyard. Megan and Lauren grin fully, but Keith’s smile is more reserved. Despite stability at home and at work, Keith longs for the excitement of youth that Megan and him had to abandon when she got pregnant 17 years ago.
The Reynolds host an English exchange student, a shy girl named Sophie (Felicity Jones), who is not comfortable with underage drinking at high-school parties and would rather have her nose in a book than go swimming. However, she is a virtuoso pianist, which attracts the attention of the music teacher dad she lives with. Sophie tells Keith that she does not have the affinity for music that she used to, but when she watches him perform in a symphony performance, their eyes meet. There is obvious electricity between them, but no reason to act on their impulses.
Unfortunately, Doremus and writing partner Ben York Jones’s script forces these two together to fit the mechanics of their melodrama. Meanwhile, the scribes fail to convince the viewer that any sparks could arise between these characters. Instead of giving either of them much of a reason to pursue this attraction, the scribes are content with letting the actors carry the subtext of this sexual curiosity on their faces. Unfortunately, the efforts of fine actors like Pearce and Jones – the latter of whom also played a woman with a much older love interest in The Invisible Woman last year – cannot transcend the slightness of the characters.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Breathe In is that it commits some very questionable screenwriting decisions, making it a worthwhile film for graduate writing students, if only to identify its poor attempts at storytelling. Keith’s interests and backstory is revealed through clunky exposition as Megan tells Sophie about her husband on the drive home from the airport. Scenes of Keith staring longingly at photographs of a younger version of him playing guitar and then talking to his wife about how he misses about the old times do not fit naturally into the rest of the story. Instead, they seem like a last-minute character detail to give him a motivation to fall for and run away with an 18-year-old girl. Another strange scene that feels shoehorned as a way to create more tension between the characters comes when Sophie decides to drop Keith’s music class, giving a vague excuse when he questions her. “I just don’t think it’s going to be the right thing for me to do,” she tells him, in a moment that is clunky and false, much like the rest of this tepid romance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Reynolds family seem more like props than people. Amy Ryan’s Megan is a painfully bland wife who likes to tell other characters (and the audience) details about her husband but has almost no career or personal conflict to be concerned with. (The lack of trouble in their marriage just makes Keith even more detestable for pursuing Sophie.) Mackenzie Davis’s promiscuous Lauren initially serves as a good comparative point for Sophie, but once she receives a car for her 18th birthday, she mainly exists to forecast a (predictable) crash that will up-end changing the dynamics of the story. Further, the scene where she discovers that something exists between her dad and Sophie is also forced and very improbable – she happens to walk to a random location for no apparent reason and sees them cavorting in the grass.
Similar to Like Crazy, Doremus’s latest is derived from a long, dialogue-free outline and relies on improvisation to colour the material. However, the actors are not up to the task, unable to make their slight character outlines more complex or compelling. The only actors to make an impression are Davis, who can be both scornful and sympathetic within moments of each other, and Jones, who has a radiant, but hard-to-read face.
Breathe In moves between repressed emotions and ridiculous screenwriting choices, dullness and dumbness. Doremus and York Jones force the characters together through the clunky mechanics of their screenwriting, drifting to an overwrought melodrama near the end that opposes the director’s natural, low-key visual style. The techniques matters little, though, as it only services a romance that is neither emotionally rich nor dramatically credible.
Dull, dumb and devoid of any passion, Breathe In is an unconvincing romance that squanders its talented cast.