Drake Doremus does one thing very, very well. He is a master at making the audience feel the emotions of his characters -- without relying on the typical protagonist story structure.
His 2011 Sundance US Dramatic Competition-winning Like Crazy took us inside both ends of a long distance relationship, creating a palpable sense of desire, frustration, and, ultimately, love. It was also a true two-hander, with neither Anton Yelchin's Jacob or Felicity Jones's Anna being protagonists in the traditional sense.
This same attitude towards storytelling is on display in Doremus's latest effort, Breathe In. While love is just as much the subject in this film as in Like Crazy, it's a very different kind of love on trial than the long-distance romantic love in that film. Here it's a forbidden love. It's the passion for youth that Guy Pearce's Keith feels for Felicity Jones's Sophie, the foreign exchange student who falls like a stone into the pond that is Keith's tranquil life. For Sophie, it's a desperate attempt at stability and the acquiescence to the impulses of a girl entering womanhood.
It's a forbidden love, not just because it's a secret from Keith's wife Megan (Amy Ryan), but also because of the damage it will surely cause to his daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), who has so graciously accepted Sophie into her life. This deals a hand ripe for Doremus to up the ante. A four-hander; four characters intimately bound by a set of relatively simple decisions. Four characters that Doremus again, even more remarkably, connects empathetically and emotionally to the audience.
If that was all there was to Breathe In, the film would be an unmitigated success. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Where in Like Crazy, Doremus and screenwriter Ben York Jones set the stage and let a series of foreseeable events play the backbone to the emotional arc, here they inject several heavy-handed plot elements that can only be characterized as contrived. Multiple coincidences hit like a slap to the forehead, having the lamentable effect of removing the audience from the very realistic emotional journey they've been traveling.
There is no doubt that Doremus is an extremely talented filmmaker. The ability to make someone feel is the ultimate ambition of storytelling. Breathe In succeeds at making the audience feel a lot. Those feelings may be interrupted at times, but their power remains arresting. For fans of Like Crazy and bold, empathetic filmmaking, Doremus's emotional journey, while imperfect, is still one well worth taking.
Review originally published during the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, March 28.