Breathe In

How many films have you watched in which an unhappy married man falls for a younger woman? Far too many to count, I would wager, and even if you haven’t seen too many you can probably figure out exactly how this type of story plays out — most of the time, at least. Breathe In is similar in story but the subtlety and complexity to the characters makes it feel slightly different. You can believe in all of these characters and while it’s occasionally plays out too easily, it’s easily watchable and worth checking out.

As these films often do, Breathe In begins with the introduction of an outsider to a seemingly stable — but only seemingly so — normal family. Sophie (Felicity Jones) has come over from England on some sort of foreign exchange program, and she is staying with the Reynolds family, made up of Keith (Guy Pearce), his wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), and their daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis). This family is welcoming, and for the first half of the film, it seems like nothing much is going to happen.

But, of course, we wouldn’t have a film if absolutely nothing happened. From the outset you could see that Keith and Sophie got along better than anyone else — including Keith and Megan, who were also contradicting and talking over one another — but at the midway point they start to notice it themselves. Soon enough we will find out whether or not Sophie will break up a marriage with her arrival in the household. While you don’t get a prize for guessing correctly, let’s just say that … actually, let’s not say anything. I’ll let it be a surprise.

What Breathe In does exceptionally well is give us realistic dialogue and strong characters. It doesn’t have too many scenes of melodrama, but it lets that build through subtle moments scattered throughout. It’s a very low-key drama, but those can sometimes be the best ones. Breathe In isn’t in the upper echelon of dramas, as it has a host of problems which ultimately keep it from being an excellent film, but it’s worth seeing because it does more than enough well.

Take the characters and their actors, for example. Both Keith and Sophie — the two real leads, even if the illusion that it’s a family affair persists for some time — are wonderfully complex and performed beautifully. Guy Pearce hasn’t been this understated and complex in ages, and Felicity Jones continues to build quite a strong resume with roles like this. She, of course, was the lead of director Drake Doremus’ previous film before Breathe In, Like Crazy, which I liked more even if it might have been more “raw.”

Both films feel realistic and contain truth about people, they way they feel and react, and the way relationships to others work. They’re the good dramas. The ones that don’t have a ton of showy moments, but the one or two they do contain are so much more powerful as a result. An excess of anything makes it lose importance, and so many dramas don’t follow that philosophy. Doremus’ films do, and that allows them to hit truth and emotions that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Despite this, Breathe In sometimes takes the easy route. There are coincidences and clichés that it can’t avoid and its overall plot doesn’t feel all that fresh. You can see almost everything coming as soon as a scene starts. Apart from one “twist” at the end, all of the relationship stumbles are predictable. Sometimes it all becomes unbelievable because of how much “like a movie” it feels. You know how there are realistic movies that lose that appearance for a few moments and that takes away their credibility? Breathe In contains a few points like that.

It also sometimes forgets that it has secondary characters and shoehorns in their feelings in ways that you can’t buy into. The daughter and mother, in particular, are relegated far into the background and when they do become important characters it feels odd because they hadn’t been treated that way for most of the picture. They hang around but the focus is almost exclusively on Keith and Sophie. when something dramatic happens with the other two females, it feels less than properly motivated.

Breathe In is a good movie, although its fair share of problems keep it from being a great one. For the most part, it has great performances and characters, and feels realistic and truthful. But its moments of cliché take us out of the experience and rob it of that credibility. It also wants to be at least partially about a family but focuses too predominantly on the two lead actors instead of being more of an ensemble affair, meaning when the supporting cast gets involved, you have to question why. It’ll make you feel something and it does have a few great moments, so I’ll recommend Breathe In, even if you have seen this story before.

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