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24 July 2013

Sophie's Choices

How is it that as the years roll by, Felicity Jones's characters get younger and younger? I probably shouldn't worry too much, as I'm about a month younger than the actress and recently got IDed trying to buy a mini bottle of wine in a UK supermarket. And yet here we are, 18 months after her last Drake Doremus film, Like Crazy, and in Breathe In, she is playing an 18-year-old instead of a 22-year-old (or even a 29-year-old, for that matter). I saw Breathe In at the 2011 London Film Festival, and thought it was sad and beautiful, although from Doremus's Q&A session with the audience, I may have been seeing the glass as slightly too empty.

Breathe In shares the same sweet sadness and the same simple beauty. It also features an English protagonist who comes to spend a fair amount of time in the States. In Breathe In, Jones plays Sophie, an 18-year-old student and piano prodigy who comes to spend a semester in the leafy glory of Westchester, New York — just down the road from Don Draper's former abode. Her host family consists of Lauren Reynolds (Mackenzie Davis), the blonde, 17-year-old only child of Megan (Amy Ryan) and Keith (Guy Pearce). Lauren is popular and the star of the swim team; Megan is a housewife who restores and collects cookie jars, most of which contain no cookies; Keith is a cellist who, somewhere along the way, has fallen in to teaching high school music to pay the bills. Their lives aren't perfect, but their team of three seems to work well enough.

Naturally, then, Sophie is the catalyst who challenges the Reynolds family in ways they never expected. And in some ways, she is a cipher. We only ever see her in the Reynolds' town: we never see her in her natural environment, back in Northamptonshire, and hear only rudimentary fragments of her — admittedly sad — life back home. At first, she tries hard to fit in: she hangs out with Lauren and Lauren's friends, she tries desperately not to impose on Lauren (no mean feat given that they are sharing a room), and she refuses at first to reveal her piano-playing talent. You can see that she isn't happy there, set adrift from whatever past tense she has left behind.

From the start, though, there is a spark between Sophie and Keith. Partly because of this, she tries to drop his class, but to no avail, and after they bond over some Chopin, you can see the connection begin to develop. Perhaps she is searching for a father figure, perhaps she just needs a saviour; either way, she feels like she can talk to Keith better than to anyone else, including Megan and especially Lauren. Keith, meanwhile, is tempted by the seeds Sophie plants in his mind: the idea that he is wasting his life by not trying to realise his dreams, for example. As they slowly fall for each other, the simplicity of Sophie's plan appeals to Keith, but it takes a disastrous incident for him to see it for what it is: a simplistic plan created by an 18-year-old with no commitments and very little life experience, no matter how wise beyond her years she may seem.

Breathe In reminded me of A Late Quartet in some ways, as well as sharing some thematic elements with Like Crazy. Jones puts in a really strong performance, with good support from Pearce, and clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the movie is neatly scripted, letting the action — such action as there is in this languorous and often melancholy film — unfold at the pace you would expect from its sleepy suburban setting. The dialogue felt convincing, and I'm pretty sure that as with Like Crazy, there was a fair bit of improvisation. I watched this film on Curzon On Demand on Sunday night, while sitting on my apartment's little balcony, which felt like the right kind of screening venue for Breathe In.

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