There’s low-key, and then there’s limp. Breathe In—a pasty indie drama about an English exchange student’s disruptive effect on her American host family—aims for the former, but ends up achieving the latter. The dialogue is improvised, the editing is heavy on jump cuts, and the handheld camerawork makes extensive use of spy-like telephoto lenses. It feels “naturalistic,” but never natural, because director Drake Doremus is neither committed enough to improvisation to allow it to guide the drama, nor confident enough at directing to push his performers toward subtlety. The result puts a handful of good actors on autopilot, maneuvering around Intro To Screenwriting character beats, occasionally accompanied by sappy piano music.
Breathe In stars Guy Pearce as Keith Reynolds, a high school music teacher and aspiring concert cellist who yearns for the bohemian life he lost when he decided to move out to the suburbs and start a family; the audience knows this because Keith’s second scene finds him staring at a faded photo of himself holding an electric guitar. Keith’s life with wife Megan (Amy Ryan) is the very image of suburban stability; the audience knows this because the movie opens with the Reynoldses posing for a family photo. Their daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), is a teenager ready for her own kind of independence; the audience knows this because she asks her parents to buy her a car in an early scene. Their houseguest, talented pianist Sophie (Felicity Jones), draws Keith’s attention and Lauren’s envy because she is worldly; the audience knows this because she arrives with a suitcase pasted with tickets and hostel decals, like a 19th-century steamer trunk.
In the right hands, the push-pull between naturalism and artificiality could be exhilarating; unfortunately, those hands don’t belong to Doremus. As in his 2011 Sundance prizewinner Like Crazy, the use of improvisation (both films were directed from lengthy, dialogue-free outlines) never succeeds in deepening the generic, on-the-nose characterizations, and the director’s handful of attempts at using form as anything other than a conveyor of improvisatory atmosphere range from clunky to incompetent.
The sequence that establishes Keith and Sophie’s mutual attraction intercuts close-ups of the two during one of his performances; she’s in the audience, he’s in the orchestra. A non-diegetic piano twinkles incessantly on the soundtrack, pushing what could be merely heavy-handed into indie kitsch. A later sequence intercuts another of Keith’s orchestral performances with shots of one character smashing things while another stares out the window of a moving train—a bingo card’s worth of clichés. Subtle lows—most of them courtesy of Ryan, stuck in what’s largely a thankless-shrew role—are few and far between, but so are compelling emotional highs. Ostensibly a portrait of its characters’ emotional lives, the movie will leave viewers caring about little aside from the running time.