Three years ago, Drake Doremus made a splash at Sundance with is beautifully crafted romance, Like Crazy. The film won major awards at the festival, but when on to be one of those many Park City darlings that died an ugly death in general release. Where it failed monetarily, it succeeded in introducing American audiences to Brit import Felicity Jones, and the alluring actress returns for Doremus' follow-up, Breathe In.
A sort of spiritual cousin to Like Crazy, the story follows yet another romantic entanglement with disastrous consequences. Doremus opts for a slow boil compared to his previous film's passionate whirlwind, while maintaining a sense of intimacy and urgency magnified by Jones and Guy Pearce's soulful performances.
Upon first glance, Keith (Pearce) and Megan (Amy Ryan) are the picture of a happy family, along with their teen daughter, Lauren (excellent newcomer Mackenzie Davis). Upon closer inspection, there's at least one major crack in the foundation. An ex-rocker who gave up a life of excitement for tuna melts and Jenga nights with the family, Keith quietly yearns for something more. A talented cellist who finds some measure of escape filling in for an acclaimed New York philharmonic, he's otherwise discontent with his job teaching music at his daughter's school.
As Keith and Megan seemingly are headed in opposing directions, the family unit is disrupted by the arrival of Sophie (Jones), a U.K. transfer student staying with them for the rest of the semester. She's quiet, fragile, and confident, at first making an ill fit into their home. Slowly but surely, she begins to form reluctant attachments, first with Lauren, and more cautiously with Keith. A refined pianist in her own right, Sophie and Keith share a musical interest he can't find in the other women in his life. During one of their first encounters, she challenges him with an angry piano solo that stirs up a fervor he thought long gone. Slowly but surely, they draw nearer to one another. The furtive glances hang a little bit longer; the innocuous conversations a bit more meaningful. Meanwhile, Megan and Lauren begin to suspect something is amiss.
Co-written by Doremus and Ben York Jones, they construct a number of fully realized characters from top to bottom. Pearce, long one of the most reliable actors around, gives a touching portrayal of a man in a no-win situation. Recognizing the love he still holds for his family, he's nonetheless overcome by the desire to live the life he felt was denied him. Jones easily could have fallen into the trap of playing the cliché home-wrecker, but she never gives a false moment throughout. She plays Sophie is a strong but flawed young woman in an unfamiliar place, looking desperately to forge a lasting connection that sets her free to live her own life. Doremus' ability to coax fantastic performances is nearly enough to forgive the film's most glaring flaws.
While the beautiful, melancholy score does a great job of setting the mood, there's an undeniable sense of "been there, done that". For all the energy Doremus puts into building these fully fleshed out characters, it's still a story we've seen a thousand times before with nothing novel brought to the table. Pearce and Jones have a palpable chemistry, but far too often the film lacks passion, so Doremus overcompensates with a final act that leans too hard on contrivance and histrionics.
So much about Breathe In works that it only makes the less competent areas more noticeable. Pearce and Jones are worthy of every bit of acclaim they will surely receive, but Doremus has yet to put together the total package.
NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.