Drake Droemus’ Like Crazy was the toast of Sundance 2011, with the film and star Felicity Jones scooping the Grand and Special Jury Prizes respectively. Like Crazy was praised for mixing an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue with a classically romcom sort of plot. Almost all the dialogue was improvised, leaving the film heavy on charm but light on plot and character development. Droesmus’ latest film, also starring Jones, is a little more scripted and a lot more ambitious. The plot is, once again, by numbers, and the pressure is on the players and the cinematography to make the film the harrowing mood piece it wants to be.
Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) is a music teacher suffering from a standard case of wasted ambition. As a youth, he tried to make it as a musician in New York City. Once his daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) was born he had to abandon that dream, and now he’s more or less settled. Then a British accent arrives in the form of 18-year-old exchange student Sophie (Jones). She’s actually staying in the Reynolds’ houshold, a remarkably uncontrived-seeming contrivance, and breakfasts etc. get fraught and whispery. Keith’s wife Megan collects cookie jars; she also fails to understand her husband’s inner life, dismissing his cello playing as a mere hobby. Sophie is a pianist, and about to face choices similar to the ones Keith faced at her age. Keith is due a mid-life crisis and it looks as though it may coincide with Sophie’s coming-of-age.
The basic plots of Like Crazy and Douchebag (Droemus’ 2010 comedy) were clichéd, almost perversely so. The former was as standard a romantic comedy as can be – beach walks, bumper car rides – with the improvised dialogue gimmick; Douchebag, an indie road movie, a sort of Sideways Greenberg with mumbling. In Breathe In, as in those two films, the organic-seeming way that little conversations unfold exists in tension with the stubborn need for plot and character development. I’m sure it’s pretty hard to even comprehend a character’s arc when you’re forced to literally make it up as you go along. This is a problem with Doremus’ films in general. Indie cinema often sacrifices plot in favour of a sort of patterning, a series of fractals; a co-operation of nuanced acting and cinematography that can sometimes give a far fuller sense of a character and atmosphere than the old three-act. But Breathe In is just too loose to make it work.
That’s not to say that the actors don’t try their hardest. Pearce is relentlessly adaptable, and he does the mumbly patois like he’s never heard the name Felicia Jollygoodfellow. Sophie is there to represent Keith’s past to him, to whisper vague profundities from the edge of the frame, but Jones’ charm goes a way towards filling up her somewhat underwritten character. We know from real life that the Keith-Sophie dynamic isn’t really a romantic one, that they usually use each other as excuses to work out, or just act out, their selfishness and immaturity. We plumb Keith’s depths fairly thoroughly and float around there for a while (and you don’t need armbands) while Sophie stays irritatingly enigmatic, Jones doing her best to define those blurred edges. She and the camera are allies in this, both bobbing around Keith as he stares out windows and fails to recover from a bad case of adolescence. John Guleserian’s cinematography is superb, all dark tones and impossibly fluid camera movements. But as the film goes on, any beauty tends to be dispersed by Keith’s increasingly manchild-ish presence.
There is, admittedly, great verisimilitude in the lack of incident and the halting dialogue. The skill with which Droemus directs improvisations is obvious and, judging by his previous efforts, hard-won. It sometimes seems as though it’s entirely up to the process of interlocution to reveal things organically; that even the actors don’t know when they’re going to drop in that bit of information that will further the plot. But the plot is the problem. American indie cinema has far too much time for the sad sack might’ve-been; I thought that Greenberg and The Squid and the Whale had stopped anyone from ever taking this sort of story seriously again, but apparently not.
Darragh John McCabe
Breathe In is released on 19th July 2013