Keith (Guy Pearce), Megan (Amy Ryan) and Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) are the picture-perfect upstate New York family, complete with board games nights and enjoyable, conversation-filled dinners. But when exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) arrives in their home, she disrupts their lives and brings to the surface the cracks that were there all along; Keith's resentment towards his white-picket fence lifestyle, Megan's belittlement of his accomplishments, and meanwhile Lauren is secretly going off the rails due to a potential alcohol problem.
There are shades of Lolita and American Beauty to the scenario, but due to the pointedly realistic dialogue and powerfully naturalistic performances, Breathe In breathes new life into a well-worn story. Writer/director Drake Doremus' previous movie was Like Crazy, another "been there done that"plot featuring a lovelorn British student that was helped hugely by its cast, and he hasn't wandered far from his wheelhouse with its follow-up. Breathe In's characters are all fantastically well drawn and defined clichés, but clichés nonetheless, so it helps that the fantastic cast give it their all, especially a never-more-pathetic Pearce and a luminous, attention grabbing Jones.
The characters aren't the only part of the movie that gives in to cliché, as some scenes display a shocking lack of originality – the first seduction scene takes place in an empty house, in a rainstorm, in a power out… there are porn movies with better set-ups – but for the most part, Doremus brings a sense of stilted, restrained longing to the movie that is all too palpable. Wisely he keeps the movie’s running time pretty short, as nobody enjoys an extended tease.
There is a running theme of the importance of music – Keith is a music teacher, former rock band member, hopeful orchestra member, and Sophie is a piano prodigy. Doremus uses everything from Chopin to Calvin Harris to great effect to help enunciate every emotion. If only he'd used that level of eclecticism with his storytelling, but instead what we have here is a family drama that is a finely made movie that already feels a bit stale.