A contemporary variation on the Lolita story that’s worth telling. Breathe In is by the unsung director Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy” is better than you would think), and it stars his former film’s ingénue Felicity Jones as the British exchange student, and Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan as the American hosts. Mackenzie Davis is just fine, too, as the American daughter who is recently sexually active herself. Doremus is smart not to be too pushy in the early casual scenes with Guy and Felicity (I’m going to break the lugubrious rules of review writing and refer to them by the actor’s first names, because Pearce and Jones sounds so dry), and you look closely within a scene to see with who is flirting with who – it’s subtle, but palpable. The eye contact, the vocal intonations, the clever word choices with implied second meanings suggest sexual tension.
Guy is a music teacher by day, and symphony musician on the weekends. Not only is Felicity in his class, but she is exceptionally talented. Anybody who gets old enough, gets bored of vocational mediocrity for years, is awakened when a new flowered sensation to enter their life. I know what it’s like to be awakened after being long dormant, too. Well, Guy’s senses are turned on, made acute, after them being long dormant. He appreciates that his wife supports his musical talent, sure, but does she really understand the meaning underneath the notes?
Here we have a girl who is just too interesting, too beyond her years. She’s probably legal age by now or not quite, it’s not brought up, left ambiguous and the story doesn’t treat legality as an issue. But her maturity and sophistication is years beyond. Perhaps Felicity is more of a Poison Ivy that just wants to turn this music teacher’s life upside down. But that would be too easy, too much of a commercial cop-out.
Felicity is a mesmerizing actress, as well as screen subject. The actress is old enough in real life to be well beyond college, but dewy enough to look right for high school. She is also believable enough to be one of those students that could take over every teacher and instruct classes in every subject. Even Guy says that she says things that are beyond what you’d expect from her looks. She says things that have ageless wisdom, and damn, if her convictions are also in tow with young idealism. When marriage to an Amy Ryan type starts to feel perfunctory, and a fresh girl enters his life, that’s when a man is really in trouble. He cares not if he’s going to make mistakes.
And so we wait to see how far the film is going to take on sexual contact. Felicity is labeled a slut after Mackenzie’s ex-fling lays rumors, this would bother most, but this Brit is too above high school sexual politics. A lousy would-be jock and braggart only gives her more reason to be intrigued by the silent loner musical teacher. Yet the film is less interested in carnality, even though there is sexual longing and desire. The suspense of the film is about who is really going to make the first move, and about whether there really is interest on both sides. Sure, the first move to touch, and that’s sexual. But like “Lost in Translation,” it’s about a spiritual connection, about getting close, holding each other, and speaking from the heart about one’s ideas of God, society, freedom and desire.
Less and less audiences in the mass consumer market are interested in Lolita type of stories. But there must be exceptions, particularly those of you who have read this far. You have in the past been captivated by “The Ice Storm,” “American Beauty” and “Little Children.” You know you are. You will be equally drawn into “Breathe In.” I can’t quite say it’s as great a film. Doremus has an amazing filmmaker eye, he looks at atmosphere and surroundings with unparalleled freshness. But the final scenes, as inevitable of clash and conflict as they are with Guy breaking fatherly and husbandly vows, is about Guy’s character and not as much about Felicity’s character. A great film would have been about both of them equally. Still, the film lingers in the mind days after seeing it.
96 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / LATE NIGHT CURIOSITY
Film Cousins: “Lolita” (1962); “The Ice Storm” (1997); “American Beauty” (1999); “Little Children” (2006).