The family drama genre is one that’s very easy to get wrong, and it’s rare to find a film of this kind that is genuinely moving without feeling overly manipulative or sappy. Writer/director Drake Doremus took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2011 with his young love drama Like Crazy, and he returns in 2013 with an intimate take on the family drama genre that marks a major step forward for the filmmaker. In chronicling the story of a foreign exchange student who causes a deep and devastating rift in a close-knit upstate New York family, Doremus’ Breathe In completely wraps the viewer up in the emotions of its characters and doesn’t let go for 98 captivating, intense, and ultimately heartbreaking minutes.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is a former musician and current music teacher at a high school just outside New York City. As the fall semester approaches, he, his wife Megan (Amy Ryan), and his high school senior daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) decide to take in a foreign exchange student from the U.K. named Sophie (Felicity Jones). In contrast to Lauren’s sporty, outgoing, and sociable personality, Sophie is decidedly more subdued and introspective. Though she is at first reluctant to demonstrate her skill, Sophie eventually outs herself as an incredible pianist during an introductory session in Keith’s piano class. Keith is rendered speechless by her skill, and the two quickly bond over their shared passion for classical music, much to the chagrin of Megan, who refers to Keith’s occasional work in a Manhattan symphony as “a hobby.”
The connection between Keith and Sophie grows stronger over the course of the film, and it’s clear that Sophie represents everything Keith loved about his previous life as a free and happy musician before Megan became pregnant and they were forced to retire to suburban life. On paper, this premise could easily be executed as bland and boring melodrama. Instead, Doremus steers the film with a delicate intimacy and maturity that wholly mesmerizes; every shot here is a gorgeous composition that serves the actors and story to great effect.
The entire cast is fantastic, but Pearce in particular turns in one of the best performances of his career. In one scene early in the film, Pearce communicates an array of emotions using only his face that’s as deep and effective as any monologue. Jones is impressive as well, displaying a range and nuance that fills Sophie out as more than a complicating plot device. Though the relationship between Keith and Sophie is certainly an important aspect of the film, ultimately the story is one of family and it’s to Doremus’ great credit that he follows Megan and Lauren through complex and fulfilling character arcs as well. Mackenzie Davis in particular is excellent as the sincere and confused daughter Lauren, and she is most certainly an actress to look out for in the future.
If the film does have a flaw it’s that the storyline follows a fairly predictable path, but the raw performances and Doremus’ inspiring direction are so effective at getting you invested in these characters that this minor quibble is quickly rendered insignificant by the film’s haunting closing sequence. The key is in the execution, and that’s where Breathe In excels.
The allure of “the path not taken” is an experience that’s universally relatable. In seeing Keith’s family spiral out of control when he flirts with the idea of starting over down that second path, the audience is presented with a candid and crushing story of why, as human beings, it’s imperative that we continue looking forward. With impeccable performances, inspired direction, beautiful cinematography, and a devastating story, Breathe In marks one of the best family dramas in recent years and a promisingly mature leap forward for director Drake Doremus.