Article/ Breathe In

Drake Doremus’ Breathe In is a moving account of familial discord. Article by Neal Baker.

In the near-identical sequences that bookend Breathe In, a married couple and their daughter pose for a photograph. The portrait presents a picture-perfect representation of the family. But it is in the moments when the photographer’s camera isn’t focused on them that a truer picture of their relationship emerges. The official image, resembling that of the happy families that Tolstoy describes in the opening sentence of ‘Anna Karenina’ as being all the same, masks simmering emotions which will eventually result in unhappiness that is very much this family’s own.

Director Drake Doremus quickly establishes the emotional and physical landscape of Breathe In, with little recourse to the clichés that typically undermine such dramas. Sophie, an English exchange student, arrives in a small upstate New York town to stay with Keith, a music lecturer at the local school Sophie will attend, his wife Megan and their daughter Lauren. A part-time cellist with a local orchestra, who teaches in order to pay the mortgage whilst awaiting the opportunity to fill a vacated chair at the NYC Symphony Orchestra, Keith appears ill at ease in his surroundings. His few moments of solace are when he is consumed by the music he recorded with a band in his youth. Megan, though supportive of him, has shifted her attention to their daughter and to a calm and comfortable lifestyle. As a result, Keith’s entreaty that the family relocate back to the city is met with passive, yet firm, dismissal. Lauren, meanwhile, is coping with a failed tryst during her final year of high school.

Sophie is carrying more than the baggage she arrives with. Withdrawn, though certainly not shy, her vulnerability strikes a note with Keith. The reason for her visit is to improve her skills as a pianist but she appears unwilling to practice, let alone attend Keith’s class. When she finally does, he asks her to introduce herself by playing the piano. The result impresses her peers, but leaves Keith shaken, as though the veneer he created in order to exist in this world had fallen away, leaving his desires and disappointments naked for all to see. Sophie embodies the potential he feels he once had, which has since been eclipsed by domestic life.

Doremus wrote Breathe In with Felicity Jones in mind to play Sophie. Jones previously played Anna in the director’s delicate love story Like Crazy (2011) and exudes an intelligence and quiet intensity that works well with Doremus’ steadfast unwillingness to allow his drama to descend into histrionics. More surprising, however, is Guy Pearce’s impressive portrayal of Keith. An actor associated with more muscular roles, it is an understated performance that allows us to comprehend Keith’s sense of anguish, even if we don’t agree with his actions.

In Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Rick Moody’s ‘The Ice Storm’, the story’s narrator Paul Hood compares his family to Marvel’s The Fantastic Four. He suggests that every family is “kind of like your own personal negative matter”, that the people who are best for us often do us the greatest harm, albeit without meaning to do so – it’s just in our nature. Breathe In also explores this terrain. It refuses to apportion blame, accepting that the very thing that finds us attracted to people, with time can be what drives a wedge between us. The intimacy between family members may not breed emotions as vicious as contempt, but the compromises they force us to make can lead to regret, which has the potential to be even more destructive.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas. Breathe In opens on Fri 19 July.