The rest of this post will contain spoilers for the movie.
Guy Pearce plays Keith, who was a rock musician living it up in New York City until he is forced to move to the suburbs to start a family. As the movie opens, he is preparing for yet another year as a high school music teacher and cellist in the local symphony. His wife repurposes/sells antique cookie jars and his daughter is a senior in high school. It's a life that one might describe as "quaint."
Cue the arrival of Sophie (Felicity Jones), an exchange student coming to spend a semester with them. She's somewhat of a piano prodigy escaping her life in England after the recent death of a close relative, and it's clear that she had expected to be living the New York City life while in the abroad, rather than living in the suburbs. Join the club, Sophie. She and Keith connect through their shared feelings of not belonging, and an attraction develops that starts to turn into something more.
The thing that struck me immediately about this film was its use of common tropes. Well, okay, "trope" isn't quite the right word - more like "cliches." But I'm not accusing the film of being cliched, even if it does contain a lot of cliches and devices, and I'll explain what I mean by that. There is nothing in this film, plot-wise, that hasn't been done a million times over all through film (and literature, television, etc.):
- Romance between a young girl and an older man
- Romance between a student and a teacher
- The discontent of living a routine, regimented life (because yes, teaching is like that!) and the longing to be free and creative and artistic
- The overbearing, content-with-the-quiet-life wife with her quaint little arts and crafts projects
- The use of physicality as characterization - Keith and his family are VERY BLOND (like, white-blond), and Sophie is darkly-beautiful from her hair to her clothing to her eye makeup
- One-dimensional teenage boys who only care about partying and getting laid (they're kind of a plot device)
- Along those same lines, their suburban family friends who throw a barbecue, and the wife has recently redecorated and her outfit is color-coordinated with their living room wall color and the husband (played by one Agent Cooper, by the way) is all "Dat ass" about Sophie as he and Keith share a stereotypical the-men-cook-the-meat moment
- The sudden onslaught of a rainstorm leading to getting soaked and sharing an intimate moment
- "Let's run away together!"
- Climactic tragic event that interrupts the running away
And so on and so forth. Really, even Keith's music class included a stereotypical nerdy Asian girl virtuoso/teacher's pet. (I almost laughed out loud at that. She even has thick-rimmed glasses! She was almost overly stereotypical.) Also, Sophie the English Girl brought a copy of Jane Eyre with her and reads all the time, and Keith's wife being all, "You should play for us one night!" smacks of Austen heroines to me :)
And yet... despite all these things that I've seen millions of times... Breathe In still held me in its grip. Even though you could smell the attraction from miles away (not literally - gross) and even though you knew how it was going to end, I still found it compelling, and realized at some point that I'd had my fists clenched in anticipation for well over half the movie. I'm going to chalk this up to two things:
1. The music
I'm no expert on classical music, so I can't identify any of the pieces that were played, but I do consider myself an appreciator, and I was blown away by the music that underscored the story. In keeping with the fact that both Keith and Sophie are classically-trained musicians, the film features GORGEOUS, swelling pieces, used both in-world and as background, and I challenge anyone not to be moved by it. In the climactic scene especially, which cuts between Keith's first performance in his new position as chair (did I phrase that right?), Sophie's quiet giddiness as she races to meet him afterwards, his wife's breakdown as she realizes her perfect life is crumbling, and their daughter's hurtling towards disaster, the music is sweeping and dramatic. The piece we hear is the piece that Keith is performing, and the fact that his performance is triumphant contrasts starkly with the fact that his life and his loved ones are falling apart as he plays.
2. "The gray area" of Keith and Sophie's relationship
As much as I recognized the wrongness of what they were doing, I also found myself rooting for them. I was literally rationalizing their relationship in my head and then chastizing myself for it. She's the same age as his daughter! But she's 18, and being 18 in the UK is different from being 18 in the US anyway, legally! She's a student in his class! But he's about to quit his job as a teacher and be a musician full-time anyway! He's married with a daughter! But his wife totally doesn't listen to what he wants, and Sophie is a musician just like him and they understand each other! And so on, and so forth. And I'm sure it wasn't just me, but Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones were really adept at walking that line between "safe" and "suspicious" earlier in the film - when Sophie first arrives, it's hard to tell if her shifty eyes are indicative of something dark in her character (and again, her coloring plays a huge role in her characterization), and Keith's smiles are friendly but are just this side of smarmy, and both of them are shown snooping around (Keith through Sophie's trunk, and Sophie through the daughter's things). And yet... their courtship (if you will) is very chaste. When they first consciously express their attraction to each other, it's a mere hand touch, but it's so charged with desire that I daresay the innocence of it made it that much more erotic. They actually touch hands/hold hands quite a lot after that point, and it makes sense that that is how they would connect, seeing as how they are both musicians. The most they do is kiss, and it's a gentle, sweet kiss, not a face-mashing, frantic sort of kiss. It's romantic and emotional... and yet so very wrong! And I was completely caught up in it, even though I knew how it was going to end. (*queueing Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" in my head*)
The film's IMDB page tells me that the movie is being released at the end of month (March 28th), so I highly recommend this film if it sounds like the sort of thing you're into. It was an intense, beautiful hour and a half that left me contemplating the nature of morality, personal freedom, and responsibility. (And FEELS. Definitely FEELS.)