Few things are harder to depict — or more urgent to recognize — than postpartum depression, so while Amy Koppelman’s “A Mouthful of Air” might be a low-budget drama shot with the simplicity of a first-time filmmaker who’s just trying not to trip over her own story, the degree of difficulty here is still off the charts. It’s a good thing, then, that Koppelman knows that story inside and out: Not only as someone who previously suffered from postpartum depression herself, but also as the author of the 2003 novel on which this movie is based.
Her intimate understanding of the shame and uncertainty born from such an inexplicable mood disorder (as well as the false promise of personal strength as a defense against depression) turns out to be the saving grace of a debut that strains to work as both a gut-punch melodrama and a public service announcement about the wonders of Wellbutrin. And yet, Koppelman’s attempts to do too much are easy to forgive in a film that often seems to be doing so little. The same is true of the writer/director’s rookie clumsiness, which is offset not only by Amanda Seyfried’s expert performance in the lead role, but also — and even more importantly — by Koppelman’s own unwavering conviction about the limits of self-expression.
“A Mouthful of Air” opens with a content warning for people with a history of depression or anxiety, and it’s one that prospective viewers should take seriously. This is not a “hard film to watch” by typical standards — Koppelman’s elliptical approach is so gentle that her film’s most seismic moments are only experienced through their aftershocks — but its delicate touch only underscores the horror movie tenacity of mental illness, which follows Hamilton Heights mom Julie Davis (Seyfried) through layer after protective layer of privilege, love, and Paul Giamatti-administered positivity.
Julie first tries to kill herself a few months before her son Teddy’s first birthday; she’s holding a scalpel in the bathroom, he’s obliviously bouncing around in a skip hop that’s parked in front of “Sesame Street,” and the whole scene is so bizarre that not even Frank DeMarco’s camera seems confused about what’s happening in the prologue. Everything is perfect aside from the attempted suicide.
From the outside, Julie looks like the kind of mom whose mere existence makes other new parents want to apologize to their own kids. She’s movie star radiant even in the overalls she wears around her large apartment, her husband Ethan (Finn Wittrock) is so handsome that his face always betrays a baseline of happiness, and her work as a children’s book author — a detail that Koppelman’s script fumbles at every turn, and struggles to define as either a job or a hobby — appears to guarantee a strong connection to her son. If “A Mouthful of Air” weren’t set in 1995 (a subtle flourish that allows for the occasional flash-forward, along with a relatively primitive understanding of postpartum), you could easily picture Julie being the world’s most effortless mommy influencer on Instagram.
And yet Seyfried — often bubbly, never dour — leads every scene with such an excitable degree of fear and fragility that we spend this entire movie waiting for the other shoe to drop. Julie’s mom (Amy Irving) is always hanging around, afraid to leave her daughter in charge of even the simplest parental tasks. Julie’s callous sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) confronts her about the selfishness of suicide the moment they sit down for drinks at a bar downtown. Even the super of Julie’s building looks at this affluent white lady as if she might fall apart at the slightest disturbance.
Graciously or not, everyone in Julie’s life is convinced that she’s just one trigger away from taking it, and Julie herself only has so much energy in performing stability. Her panic attacks and other nervous episodes aren’t particularly convincing, but the scenes between Julie and her psychiatrist Dr. Sylvester (Giamatti) are forthright about the character’s headspace in a way that backstops even the film’s hokiest missteps. “I felt spoiled and too weak,” she tells him in an optimistic use of the past tense, “like every other woman would do a better job of taking care of Teddy.”
Any parent, regardless of their mental health, can understand the cruel anxiety of feeling like you’re unfit to raise your own child, just as any parent can understand the fear that your kids won’t like you when they grow up. Julie can’t even console herself with the idea that her own parents felt the same way, as her abusive father — initially confined to a series of grainy flashbacks that push a destabilized movie to the brink of dissolution — actually was unfit to raise his own child (and she doesn’t like him as a result).
Later, Julie’s dad will return in one of the movie’s half-hearted attempts to explain the source of her despair; or, more accurately, to explain why none of those explanations quite suffice. The drama of those scenes might as well be ineffective by design, as Koppelman maintains that rational solutions can only be so effective in the face of irrational problems. “You can be as strong as Hercules himself,” Dr. Sylvester coos, “but if you fall in a pool and you don’t know how to swim, you’ll drown.”
It’s a moral that Koppelman conveys through an unsteady mix of slow-moving tragedy and “This Is Us”-level melodrama. Largely contained in close-ups so extreme that even her peach fuzz has to convey a sense of dislocation, Seyfried’s performance sidesteps histrionics in favor of something more honest and upsetting. She plays Julie as a wide-eyed woman who knows how much she has to lose, and her warbling face never lets us forget how desperately Julie wishes that she knew how to keep it (Dr. Sylvester reads his patient one of Sylvia Plath’s final poems in order to emphasize its lightness).
“A Mouthful of Air” only gasps for breath when Julie is offscreen, as the various devices that Koppelman uses to flesh out such an interior story — animated interludes, a fractured chronology, a climactic wallop that risks the film’s dramatic credibility in order to wrest a few tears — all conspire to suggest a lesson that was more effective on the page. The film is too haunted by helplessness to risk feeling didactic, but this is unambiguously a message movie, and the message is that you can’t argue with brain chemistry. If even Julie Davis can sink into such despair, Koppelman insists, then mere mortals shouldn’t feel any shame about taking the drugs that might save their lives.
Sony Pictures Entertainment will release “A Mouthful of Air” in theaters on Friday, October 29.