In nearly every possible way is Drake Doremus‘ Like Crazy follow-up, Breathe In, a more mature, confident and impressive piece of work. For the first hour at least.

Featuring quietly devastating performances from Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan, who play a couple at the bitter end of a 17-year old marriage, Doremus allows his actors to act, slowly letting us into this family that is broken to pieces once foreign exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) comes to stay. He and cinematographer John Guleserian let the camera stay put for the most part, a welcome change of pace from the handheld shakery that consumed Like Crazy. It’s a handsomely shot film that makes the very most of its Upstate New York setting. At once dreary and serene, the color tone of the picture very succinctly meshes with the emotional pull going on inside this home. All is wrapped together with a beautiful score from Katie Byron.

Keith (Pearce) is a music teacher who would rather be a full-time musician. He’s got a beautiful home, beautiful wife (Ryan) and beautiful daughter (Mackenzie Davis). And yet his pain and longing is immediately relatable. We feel it when he winces as his wife calls his music-playing a “hobby” or calls the band he was once in “cute.” Under thick-rimmed glasses and an unkempt beard, Keith looks worn and beaten and tired. It’s a masterful performance from Pearce, who continues to stand out from his ever-talented generation of middle-aged performers. If only Ryan had been given as much to work with from the material. She’s unfortunately relegated to reaction shots and snippy judgments.

Jones, playing a very wise and confused version of an 18-year old woman, is engaging here as well, creating a girl not fully aware of the influence she has over this family.

That said, the real attraction here is Pearce and Ryan, who deserve their own movie. Their scenes together are the strongest in the film, each one full of honest moments that speak to a deep past full of something that is no longer there. And while they barely say anything to each other throughout, what time they do have together on screen is precious.

For a long while Doremus builds and creates with a steady hand, allowing Sophie to seep into Keith’s world just at the moment he’s given an opportunity to pursue his dreams. And then, in one sorry motion of narrative folly, Doremus begins a third act with the kind of script convenience that should be reserved for shoddy mystery thrillers. It’s a big misstep, one the film never fully recovers from. What could have remained an provocative character piece becomes something entirely different, more concerned with jealously and anger where there was once guilt and regret. Drama turns to melodrama, and a story that once felt honest and true feels a bit silly.

The great performances, beautiful camera work and immersive score are all still there, just a bit drowned out by a squandered final act.

Grade: B-

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