Drake Doremus follows up his foreigner-in-the-States 2011 film Like Crazy with the eerily similar Breathe In – one with related premise of another British girl finding herself abroad, and Felicity Jones once again glows in the lead role proving herself again as lead material. The music composed by Dustin O’Halloran and desaturated but intimate cinematography of John Guleserian all blend to create a distinct understanding of what it is to be an uprooted Brit in a place like New York – quietly overwhelming. Trust me, I know.
In a present day upstate New York, a small American family decide to open their home to a foreign exchange student. That student is Sophie (Felicity Jones); a soft, unassuming and brilliantly polite British music student who nurtures a particular gift for the piano. At first feeling desperately homesick and finding it incredibly difficult to merge into the landscape of American high school and its established cliques, in an American Beauty-esque twist she begins to find solace in the father (Keith, played by Guy Pearce) of the host family. A silent but no less emotional relationship erupts and spills into the lives of everyone around them.
The character of Sophie does edge perilously close to that of the manic pixie dream girl at times, with the our gaze directed toward her quiet beauty and the ‘exoticness’ that is manufactured by her being foreign and other and so heart-stoppingly different to the average American teenagers of daughter Lauren’s peers – in the eyes of Keith at least, who uses her to bask in the nostalgia of a time before having the mundane life with a wife and child in the suburbs with the job and house and garden. This nostalgia is symbolised by the shared passion for creating music that Sophie and Keith both share. Keith submerges himself in self-pity as his wife and daughter fail to fully relate to this life’s love. Wife Megan finds greater importance in his ability to fund her dream house rather than his desire to make art; and Sophie remains annoyingly apathetic and unsure what to do with her own explicit talent.
The ‘breathe in’ of the title is contrived from a sequence in which Keith, nervous before a big music audition, is calmed by some breathing techniques from Sophie. It’s a fairly unremarkable scene on paper, existing to show these two characters ‘seeing’ each other properly for perhaps the first time since they met; but somehow translated onto screen with such an understated hand and transcendental performances radiating from the eyes of both Jones and Pearce it works, and in some way I understand why it’s been used to carry the whole film.
The ending may indeed be another reimagining of the MPDG, but I believe Sophie is closer to the ever knowing fuck-you-I’m-a-human-being Clementine of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to say, the inane conscious quirkiness of Sam in Garden State. Despite being objectified by all the men she meets (particularly the middle-aged neighbour of her host family who unashamedly oogles her as she reads on a sunlounger) Sophie has a well developed sense of self with her uncomplicated style and ability to easily make friends without a deliberately offbeat delivery like so many MPDGs are written. Breathe In in its closing scenes either makes a self-aware critique of the trope, or brilliantly summerises it. As Keith realises the magnitude of what he cannot give up (what he perceives as his responsibility as a middle-aged man), Sophie disappears from his periphery and ceases to exist in this universe at all. She is deliberately starved of a parting word. Perhaps she survives as a memory, but even so she is forced into a shadow of the actual human being she is. And this is the problem inherent in the MPDG and to critique it isn’t misogynistic. It is essential. These women are resigned only exist to aid ‘sensitive’ and self-pitying artist type men in the opening of their own eyes and lust for life. I can only hope that Doremus is making a point on this issue.
Breathe In is for me terribly hard to dislike; even with its formulaic story and characters. Felicity Jones and Guy Pearce are brilliant on screen together, and a lot of credit must be given to Jones for creating what I see as the feminine interpretation of the MPDG – the MPDG as if she’s not been written by a man. Doremus’ Like Crazy is the pilot episode, its real potential finally fully realised in Breathe In.