The Reynolds family is the prototypical suburban New York family. Mother Megan (Amy Ryan) sells antiques and not only does all the chores a suburban mom is “expected” to do, but she does it with an odd joy (when someone tries to relieve her of her duties of transporting her daughter’s swim team, she declines because, said with a smile, she likes driving). Father Keith (Guy Pierce) plays cello in the local orchestra and teaches music classes at the town’s high school. Daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) is the perfect high school senior, good grades mixed with championship swimming abilities. The family take seasonal photos by their backyard gazebo (taken by a professional photographer, of course), cheerfully play games of Jenga while discussing the day’s activities and work together to send end-of-summer letters to friends and family with updates of what’s been going on in the Reynolds house. They’re basically living this perfect, lovely and peaceful existence when foreign exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) comes to stay for a semester.
Felicity Jones is a lovely woman, and she plays Sophie with a quiet reserve. If you assume, therefore, that this is another telling of the trope of an apparent ingenue coming into a happy household and stirring up some shit, you are correct. But the loveliness of writer/director Drake Doremus’ film is that it’s a fresh, touching, and possibly heartbreaking (depending on your ultimate point of view) take on this story. Sophie befriends Lauren, who is begrudgingly forced to share her room with this quiet English girl, and though the two get along well at first, their burgeoning friendship doesn’t last particularly long. As you expect, without getting too spoilery about it, something develops between Sophie and Keith which threatens to rip the family apart, possibly quite literally (early in the film, Keith forebodingly tells a symphony acquaintance, in a conversation having nothing to do with Sophie: “you know me and being foolish wouldn’t be the first time”).
That’s really the heart of the film, this burgeoning something between Keith and Sophie. Through a beautiful early scene devoid of dialogue, we come to realize that Keith, while seemingly happy in his suburban life, misses the days of his youth when he was living in the city and playing guitar in a band. But he doesn’t find an attachment with Sophie simply because he wants to regain some youth. Nor does she find an attachment with him simply because she’s precocious and rabble-rousing (she’s not), or because she’s lost (though she somewhat is). Rather, the film slowly builds up to the two finding a connection, which really begins to turn into a potential full-on burn in the scene which gives rise to the movie’s title, a fantastic moment that’s remarkably sensual given that Keith and Sophie remain across a room from each other the entire time.
What makes Drake Doremus’ movies so great is that a scene like this is a true collaboration. As with his prior Like Crazy, Doremus did not write a script; he put together a detailed scene-by-scene outline which the cast then improved and work-shopped with for a few weeks prior to filming. The result is a very natural and organic flow to the dialogue throughout the film, which does not actually feel at all improvised. That’s not to take away from Doremus in the slightest, because he has crafted a surprisingly intimate movie that successfully rides a quartet of excellent performances.
It’s no surprise that Guy Pierce is excellent because, you know, Guy Pierce (bonus points to the film’s hairdresser for giving him the slightest wisps of unruly locks). The only complaint about Amy Ryan’s performance is that she’s not quite given as much to do as the rest. But what she’s given, she nails. Meanwhile, Mackenzie Davis may be a relative newcomer, but she plays Lauren perfectly, making her seem like a real teen without crossing over into stereotype or camp. She’s also responsible for what’s possibly my favorite moment in the film, a quick and silent reaction of almost heartbroken disappointment when her father offers a bit of praise to Sophie, clearly with a level of enthusiasm he’s never quite shown to his daughter. As for Sophie, Felicity Jones is perfect. Sophie has come to the States as much to see what it’s like on this side of the pond as to escape her own side of the pond. She’s lost, for reasons that become apparent as the film progresses, and Jones relays so much of what Sophie is feeling and hurting with the most casual of looks and nuanced delivery of dialogue. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful all at once.
Going back to the scene I mentioned before, it encapsulates and exemplifies why this movie is so good. In this one scene, you have this wonderful mostly-a-monologue that’s punctuated by perfect performances and expertly captured by Doremus’ direction. If I sound overly effusive, it’s because I love this movie (in fact, it’s grown on me even more so in the days between my viewing and this writing), and not just for everything I’ve mentioned. It’s that there is deceptively sophisticated intimacy in what is, on its face, a simple movie. There’s no question of an ick-factor when it comes to a potential romance between Keith and Sophie (the film establishes early on that Sophie’s eighteen, to make it clear that we’re merely talking about ick and not illegality). If Keith and Sophie fall into a full-fledged relationship, consummated or not, it will presumably destroy the Reynolds household. We’ve all seen movies like this before, and the Sophie role is to be rooted against.
And yet, many viewers will be rooting for Keith and Sophie. Earlier today, in fact, I was discussing this movie with a girl sitting next me at another screening and as we were talking, she suddenly got very quiet for a moment and then practically whispered her admission that she had been rooting for the two to get together. I think I made her feel better by saying I felt exactly the same way. I won’t spoil anything about how things play out and how far things do or don’t go between Keith and Sophie, but as the film progresses, there are two possible outcomes, and you should know that either is possible — Doremus candidly revealed that there was serious debate between he and his creative team over this, as he wanted to take things one way while everyone else thought it should go the other.
I wish I could spoil it, as there’s more I could say about how things play out and about the direction Doremus’ instincts wanted to take it and what it says about him (or, at least, my interpretation thereof), but I’ve already said more than I’d ideally like. But my hope is that I’ve said enough to convince you to see Breathe In when it comes out. I don’t imagine that each and every one of you will root for the home-wrecking relationship. But the fact that all these pieces come together in such a way that many of you will, despite your every societal instinct to the contrary, well that’s just a remarkable moviemaking feat.
Breathe In premiered at Sundance 2013.