By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 5, 2014)
While I am aware that the “suspension of disbelief” is inherent to movie-watching, writer-director Drake Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones are demanding a healthy amount of it from their audience with Breathe In, a tale of affluent angst set in John Cheever Land, shot in a formal, austere style recalling Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. First, you have to find 30 year-old Felicity Jones believable as an 18 year-old British exchange student named Sophie. There is certainly no problem for the UK-born actress to sell the “Brit” part…but chronologically, she’s too long in the tooth (like 30 year-old Dustin Hoffman was playing age “21” in The Graduate).
Then again, perhaps there was a method to this casting madness. Because you see, Sophie is one of those Old Souls. Which I’d guess is a device to make it more “believable” (and less creepy?) that she and the American host family’s Dad, Keith (Guy Pearce) experience some kind of instantaneous mutual attraction, telegraphed by an exchange of soulful stolen glances no sooner than Keith and his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) pick Sophie up at the airport to drive her to their upstate New York digs, where she will be sharing a room with the couple’s 18 year-old daughter (Mackenzie Davis). Nothing creepy about it at all.
Keith is a mopey kind of fellow, one of those embittered, frustrated musicians who has pretty much given up his dreams and settled for teaching piano to high school students. “Keith will be your piano teacher at school. He has a hobby with the symphony,” Megan tells Sophie while making small talk during their ride home from the airport. Keith bristles, quietly hissing “It’s not just a hobby”. Keith plays cello, and has been subbing, but is on pins and needles regarding an upcoming audition for an open chair. “Would you give up teaching?” asks Sophie. “Yeah.” Keith answers without hesitation. One beat behind, Megan blurts a “No”. Houston, we have a problem.
Keith seems to be the only brooding artiste in the family. His daughter is an outgoing sort; a high school swim team champ, she’s a bit of a ditz (if likable enough). Likewise Megan, who goes all Martha Stewart over cookie jars. She collects and sells them online. Sophie smiles politely while pretending to be fascinated by an upcoming “cookie jar expo” that Megan is quite jazzed about. But in her heart of hearts, Sophie is an Outsider. Just like Keith, who shuts himself up in his room practicing for his audition and gazing wistfully at old photos of himself in younger days, when he played in a rock ’n’ roll band.
Curiously, Sophie wants to opt out of taking Keith’s piano class. When Keith asks her why, she is evasive, muttering cryptic excuses. Naturally, Keith is intrigued. He insists she has no choice; until she “officially” gets herself taken off the rolls via the school’s requirements, it is mandatory that she come to his class. Reluctantly, she shows up. Keith invites her to “play something” as a way of introducing herself to the the class. After shooting Keith one of those world-weary, “Are you sure this is what you want?” looks, Sophie sits down at the piano, and proceeds to blow the room away Van Cliburn-style, with what she introduces as one of “Chopin’s warm-up pieces” (whatever you’re thinking is going to happen next…you are correct).
Ay, there’s the rub. Unless you are clinically brain-dead, whatever you think is going to happen next in this film, it pretty much does. You’re always one act ahead . The actors are all quite good, and there are some nice touches; as in the way the director cleverly interpolates incidental musical interludes (e.g. Keith’s melancholy cello piece, Sophie’s fiery piano solo) with each character’s emotional turmoil. But there is a glaring lack of motivation for each character’s actions. They are just chess pieces, shuffling around on the thin outline of a narrative that isn’t quite all there. While there seems to have been a noble attempt to construct the story itself like a symphony (I get that) it unfortunately comes off like it’s an unfinished one, at best.