Long story short: Breathe In looks and feels like romance itself and the work of the director adheres you to the star-crossed lovers.
Breathe In will remind you of: Like Crazy, Blue is the Warmest Color, Shadows, Faces, Fish Tank, An Education
Review: The look of love is something few filmmakers can pull off. Kar Wai Wong is well-known as the modern master of the idea, but he's got some competition in young American director Drake Doremus. With Breathe In, Doremus has made a kind of companion film to his last one, the atmospheric Like Crazy. Both star Felicity Jones as a young girl in love and both do an impressive job of enhancing that feeling through cinematography. Doremus strives for intimacy and he gets it by using his camera as a fly on the wall, a spy in the house of love.
Breathe In begins with a family portrait. Keith (Guy Pearce) and Megan (Amy Ryan) live the quiet life with their teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) in upstate New York. They smile for the camera but there's a distance to Keith in particular. He's there but not there.
Inside the house, Megan emerges as the head of household. She wants to prepare for the arrival of a foreign exchange student, something Keith didn't even know was definite. Sophie (Jones) is coming over from England to stay for the semester. Megan's excited, Lauren's dismayed she has to share her room, and Keith is disappointed. A musician, he wants to concentrate on an upcoming audition, not deal with some houseguest.
But Keith changes speeds gradually after Sophie's arrival. She's a piano prodigy and impresses Keith with a rendition of a Chopin piece. They bond over music and it soon becomes clear there's nobody else in the world for either of them. Sophie left her home in the UK in a rush and seems entirely lost in the States. She doesn't relate to Lauren and her hard-partying friends. She "doesn't know who she's playing for." So she finds comfort in spending time with Keith. They slowly grow closer as the film churns and soon their friendship becomes an affair.
The story isn't an original one. We've seen age-inappropriate romances in many films. What makes Breathe In unique is how the story is told. It has a stillness that's nerve-wracking. Doremus, who wrote the film with Ben York Jones, doesn't give his actors a script. He uses an outline for each scene and has them improvise their lines. Multiple takes become shorter each time until only the guts of a scene are left. The technique is risky but the director proved with Like Crazy it can pay off despite a simple narrative. As in the films of John Cassavetes, the actors are stripped to the bone and exposed. The result is naturalistic and, when combined with Doremus' intimate camera work, deeply moving.
Pearce is especially great here. The Australian actor is, like Gary Oldman, one of those guys who's worth the price of admission. No matter the film, if Guy Pearce is in it, you'll at least enjoy his performance. He's a bit of a prick at first as Keith. He's put off by the new houseguest and annoyed when she tries to make small talk. Part of the veracity of the romance is how Sophie's able to win him over and how slowly Doremus allows it to happen. Jones creates an old soul in Sophie. She quotes her uncle's advice in a scene and calms Keith before his audition by showing him a breathing technique that's the film's nakesake. During the exercise, they're alone in the world. She may be 18, but she's not like any 18-year-old Keith's ever met.
Doremus also subtly excuses Keith's arguably immoral behavior. To root for a guy like this, someone who romances a high school girl, some important things need to happen. First, the film is entirely inoffensive. An early scene reveals Sophie's age and following ones show Keith and Megan's relationship evaporating. They've been married for 17 years and Keith frequently disagrees with Megan's belittling comments about his true love, music. You may not agree with Keith romancing his young paramour, but you'll lose no sleep over his marriage hitting the rocks. Megan doesn't understand him, but Sophie does.
It's fascinating watching a scandal play out like this. Many films take the outsiders' perspective when telling the story of a doomed romance. But that viewpoint is distant, a cop out. Doremus obviously knows he's telling a taboo story, but he's much more interested in the clockwork of romance than the court of public opinion. He conveys the danger of the situation by keeping the audience close to Keith and Sophie. Much of their scenes together are shot in tight close-ups. The world outside vanishes. So we feel what they feel, and most of the time, that feeling is anxiety. The tranquility of their relationship, and of the film, is constantly in danger so Breathe In boasts a palpable tension that's Doremus' largest triumph.