For some, high school is the time of their lives. You’re old enough to push boundaries and get into hijinks, but young enough to not be tried as an adult. Chemical hormones push every emotion to their highest high and lowest low, and many teens just feel everything so deeply and honestly. Friendships are made and broken, as social skills are run through every gamut and artificial hierarchies are constructed and ignored. These are the subjects of the vast majority of the cinematic education experience.
For others, high school is the lowest point. Its the point where normative behaviors are delineated, outsiders are developed, and friendships are broken as social circles constantly spin. It’s a time where awkward social skills become objects of ridicules. Obsessions and fixations are developed and replaced, and every low low is felt to its complete and utter depth.
Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore feature Breathe is a drama of ratcheting tension about two high school girls who find themselves tied together in a mutually parasitic relationship. Charlie is a slightly awkward girl who finds herself in an emotional hole as her parents are actively splitting up. At school, she’s told to look after Sarah, a new student from Nigeria. They get along, until they don’t…or maybe its a bit more complicated than that.
Laurent, who co-wrote the screenplay with Julien Lambroschini, dissects female relationships, especially those that should be termed frenemies. As Sarah and Charlie find themselves tied together, the need for each other never feels anything less than real. Their blind groping for somebody who understands them is as heartbreaking as it is frustrating. Breathe pulls no punches when it captures how these destructive spirals spontaneously generate and devolve with no safety net.
After starring in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Villeneuve’s Enemy, Laurent picked up amazing control of the camera and of her actresses. Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge have an electric chemistry that undulates between animal magnetism and complete repulsion as they figure our who they are and who each other are. Laurent allows them to play off each other without distracting, but she’s not being lazy either. Midway through Breathe, Laurent pulls off a tracking shot that will have you on the edge of your seat.
Breathe made it on my top 15 of last year (and would have had a proper review if I had known that it actually came out), and is a stunning achievement. Breathe is currently streaming on Netflix.