It's difficult to ascertain the intent of an artist from a single work, but Drake Doremus' gradually expanding filmography gives the impression of a skillful filmmaker more interested in gaming the system than doing anything fresh with it. To date, each of Doremus' movies have shown the hallmarks of certain tendencies in American cinema: 2009's "Spooner" was the kind of meandering, forgettable slacker comedy one can find padding the lineups of most U.S. festival programs; the shakycam comedy "Douchebag" inserted the tropes of the emerging "bromance" genre into an aimless road trip misadventure seemingly modeled on someone's idea of a commercial "mumblecore" story; "Like Crazy," which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, was a by-the-numbers romance about the perils of long distance relationships. Just because it all sounds familiar doesn't mean you've seen it before.
None of these movies were entirely irksome — if nothing else, Doremus succeeded at coaxing deeply felt performances out of his leads, particularly with regard to the chemistry shared by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin in "Like Crazy," which marked career-bests for both young actors. And yet each project suffered from bland, formulaic developments and rote stylistic devices that yielded largely unmemorable results. You don't need to see Doremus' movies to gain familiarity with his work, because it's everywhere.
Now comes "Breathe In," which continues the trend. Operating in the same mopey vein as "Like Crazy," here's a polished, moody drama about the travails of a solemn upstate New York music teacher Keith Reynolds (Guy Pearce) and the equally doleful British exchange student Sophie (Jones), who moves into his troubled household and falls in love with him. To be fair, "Breathe In" may hit a lot of familiar beats, but none of them are entirely unwelcome. No matter how predictable the narrative gets, it's always a sight to behold: Reteaming with cinematographer John Gulserian, Doremus roots the elegant proceedings in expressive color schemes, from the tranquil greens of nature surrounding the Reynolds' suburban home to the dark blues that cover the unlikely couple as they begin to form a forbidden bond.
But the nature of that bond arrives too bluntly, and there's little in "Breathe In" that manages to surprise or inspire much emotional investment in the scenario. From the moment that Keith and his wife Megan (Amy Ryan) pick up Sophie at the airport and drive her home, the chilliness between the couple as Megan brushes off Keith's "part-time work" playing cello in the local orchestra make it clear that Sophie will somehow find a role in their downward spiral. When she later attempts to drop out of Keith's piano course at the local high school where he teaches, then dazzles him after he coaxes her to play, their romantic chemistry is so thick it threatens to smother any other element in play.
The subplots include the possibility that the Reynolds' teen daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) resents Sophie for accidentally wooing the local stud, and Keith's insecurities over his upcoming performances. Sophie naturally rescues him from his anxieties with the breathing maneuvers referenced in the film's title, but there's no real sense of peril about either the outcome of his performance challenge or their mutual attraction: The question of "Will they or won't they?" is quickly supplanted by "Get on with it!"
Jones has been steadily developing a curious blend of fragility and anger in her performances, and Doremus' script (co-written by Ben York Jones) gives her plenty of room to generate the chilly eroticism that has quickly become her trademark (see last year's "The Invisible Woman" for another seductive example). Pierce is effectively understated, and Ryan seems to content to grimace through most of the story, while Davis matches Jones' impressive state of uneasiness but receives considerably less substantial screen time.
As a whole, the ensemble coasts along toward an inevitably downbeat finale, with Dustin O'Halloran's wonderfully muted score providing the only respite, alongside soulful renditions of classical compositions — most notably when Jones performs Chopin before her would-be professor. As her fingers zip across the keys and Doremus frantically frantically cuts from her focused gaze to her baffled mentor, Sophie briefly transforms into an electric presence. Even there, however, we've heard it all before.
Criticwire Grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cohen Media Group releases "Breathe In" in several cities this weekend. The classical music hook should lure older arthouse viewers and yield respectable box office results, but the movie should find a better foothold on VOD, where the combination of genre and star power should help it find audiences in the long-term.