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A safer choice of opening gala for the Edinburgh International Film Festival than last year’s Killer Joe, Drake Doremus’ Breathe In is a close knit, slow burning drama centred around piano teacher Keith (Guy Pearce)and the impact the arrival of exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) has on his family.

Keith and wife Megan (Amy Ryan) seem to have an idyllic lifestyle. Theirs is a world of stable employment, of large houses in the outer suburbs. A world where there is enough free time and energy to indulge in and follow their passions – Keith’s part time orchestral cellist position and Megan’s cookie jar collecting. A world in which their marriage is envied by friends surrounded by divorce parties, and they have the luxury of gifting a car to swim team champion daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) for her eighteenth birthday. On the surface they are – like the family portraits they pose for – perfectly happy.

It becomes clear with haste that all is not as rosy as outside eyes are led to believe. Megan refers to Keith’s love of music as a hobby, drawing his ire and causing him to retreat inward with daydreams of bands past and what may have been. He longs for city life and seeks solace from those who are supposed to be his ‘favourite people’. He appears to show little interest in the pursuits of his daughter, and displays an underlying hint of resentment as to how family life has placed restrictions upon him. Watching this unfold, Sophie becomes drawn to Keith. Quiet, and with a maturity beyond her years, Sophie is able to see the papered-over cracks in his marriage.

Holding similar viewpoints on life, music and creativity, a bond develops between Keith and Sophie. A bond which alienates his wife, and rips apart the already tense relationship Sophie had begun to form with Lauren. A bond which Doremus goes to great lengths to portray as having been less sparked by lustful desire but instead conceived through sensitive longing and the recognition of a kindred spirit.

For all the tender moments though, it is hard to see Sophie as anything other than a way out for Keith; a reason to be excused from his commitments. His decisions and actions seem too quick, selfish, and almost unbelievable. There are no sexual advances, but is this wistful doe-eyed reaction to Sophie really more than a midlife crisis caused by boundaries and restrictions imposed by marriage and fatherhood? Perhaps he falls more for what Sophie represents – freedom, choice, and escape – than the girl she is.

Guy Pearce gives a thoughtful and understated performance as Keith, connecting well with Jones as Sophie, but their relationship is lacking in charm. It is hard to feel sympathy or empathy for either of them, not because of their actions, more through an emotional stiltedness. Which applies to the whole film as – with the exception of Lauren – emotion often becomes replaced with quiet acceptance. There is outfall, there are repercussions, but the consequences of Keith’s actions are never truly explored to their full potential, with Amy Ryan’s role as Megan being relegated to an afterthought.

The musical pieces and score by Dustin O’Halloran prove to be a highlight. There is much beauty to be found in its cinematography, also in its messages and themes of freedom and choice, but with a slightly ambiguous ending, Breathe In follows in the footsteps of Keith’s treatment of his wife. Becoming cold and emotionally distant, it starts to forget the viewer who invested their time in watching it, and flees off as soon as it can, avoiding confrontation.

There are solid performances throughout, but it just isn’t enough.
Bloody good beard on Guy Pearce, though. Damn fine beard.

(Review originally posted on Live For Films)