By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today in theaters throughout the Bay Area, including the Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.
Writer-director Drake Doremus didn’t break any new stylistic ground with his 2011 debut Like Crazy – it employed the same handheld and jump-cut “naturalism” that has been flooding indie films for the last decade. But Like Crazy rewired and reinvigorated the idea of a passionate and doomed modern romance by making the couple’s antagonist not another person, but vast physical space.
The film’s young lovers were an American boy and a British girl (Felicity Jones) studying abroad, and their affection was intensified and severely tested when she was deported back to England. Felicity Jones is also the female star of Breathe In, and once again she is playing a British exchange student who falls in love with an American. However, this time Doremus tells a story that is more derivative and familiar, and probably better suited to a late-night skin flick – that of the lonely and unappreciated middle-aged husband who catches the eye of the sexy young student.
In a mostly unconvincing turn, Guy Pearce plays Keith Reynolds, a married father and high school music teacher who still romanticizes his days of irresponsible youth. As the film opens, he is longingly (and surreptitiously) looking at old photographs of himself as a young rock guitarist. Keith still performs as a fill-in for the local orchestra, which his wife (Amy Ryan, totally wasted) dismisses as a “hobby,” even though Keith would happily trade in his life for a permanent chair. It may be that the only thing keeping them together at this point is their spoiled daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), who is about to leave for college.
Enter Jones as the comely and talented (she’s a piano virtuoso) Sophie, who is sharp enough to figure out the family dynamic on the car ride home from the airport. She subtly starts to pursue Keith, and yet Sophie is never developed enough for us to understand why. Keith pines for his lost youth, and Sophie represents the life of choices that he fears is behind him, but what’s in it for her? The characters are mere sketches, and none of the relationships feel genuine, so her interest in Keith just comes off as a dumb male fantasy.
Breathe In starts out deadly familiar and climaxes in a silly and contrived catharsis, offering no shortage of easy answers and head-slapping symbolism in between. Jones is OK but Doremus doesn’t permit her to find any layers in this “perfect girl” – she had a much better vehicle earlier this year in the Ralph Fiennes-directed The Invisible Woman. In a cinema of infinite choices, Doremus makes a lot of wrong ones here.