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Movie Review: “Breathe In”

Movie Review: “Breathe In”
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Middle aged ennui and the allure of foreign exchange students are hardly new topics for filmmakers. Yet writer/director Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) manages to take these well-worn subjects and inject them with such authenticity that you’ll swear that you’re seeing something quite original.

That’s due in a large part to his superb actors who live in their roles and make them ache with nuance and truth. British actress Felicity Jones (returning from “Like Crazy”) is so good that you’ll swear she’s playing a version of herself…until you remember that she was also brilliant in “The Invisible Woman”.

Jones brings a determined maturity to the young talented pianist Sophie who comes to spend a semester in an upstate New York high school. She is lodged at the home of music teacher Keith (Guy Pearce) who is awash in lost dreams and missed opportunities. He occasionally plays cello for a New York orchestra and is longing for a permanent position with them. His sense of regret is palpable; it’s apparent pretty quickly that he rues the decisions he’s made in his life….or at least wants a second chance.  Things aren’t helped any by Megan, his wife of nearly 20 years (Amy Ryan) who demeans his “hobby” of playing cello and makes it clear that she wants him to remain a local school teacher and nothing more.

Keith and Megan have a teenage daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) who is an accomplished athlete. But his pride for her goes only so far. When Sophie enters the picture he is enthralled by her musical talent, downplaying her ability to his wife but boasting about her to a friend. For her part Sophie initially doesn’t seem particularly drawn to Keith. Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones (“Like Crazy”) are smart enough to make Sophie mature and intelligent and not just a sex kitten who is out to wreck a marriage. Keith’s attraction for Sophie grows gradually, and is more a result of their mutual passion for (and even ambivalence about) music than a physical attraction.

Doremus lets the sexual tension build slowly between them. Sophie plays piano in his class and Keith is entranced. They share something that he and his wife never have and never will.  To Keith, Sophie represents the potential and promise that we imagine he once showed but put aside when he had a child and moved to the country. The ache and need are powerful in Pearce’s performance. And wisely, Doremus never makes this about sex. The scenes of intimacy involve hands touching, caressing and are more emotionally laden than anything physical. It’s clear that Keith’s betrayal is worse than if he had just slept with another woman.

In a slight misstep Doremus chooses to throw in a deus ex machina which forces a conclusion for Sophie and Keith. But not before he has shown us the dangerous path they embark on. A moment late in the movie reminded me of the final scene of “The Graduate”, where doubt starts to creep in after the culmination of a series of rash actions.

Doremus and Jones are astute observers of human fragility and our need for connection. As in “Like Crazy”, there is no Hollywood Happy Ending here. Relationships are hard, careers don’t always go to plan and love is never smooth sailing.  It’s the truth of life that is on the screen in “Breathe In”…and it’s painful, and glorious, and complicated.

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