A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Teenage girls yearn to connect. It's an impulse that is so strong that if one is left outside the charmed circle of belonging the whole world can fall apart. It's like being banished from a very powerful cult. Who you are depends on how you are perceived. Betrayal and manipulation, occurring beneath parental notice, is savage. Mélanie Laurent's second feature, "Breathe," based on a popular YA novel, understands the addictive sensations of a new friendship, its thrilling swing into merging, and its dizzying plunge into hurt and rage. It's a confident and scary film.
When Sarah (Lou de Laâge) first appears in school, she carries with her the self-aware glamour of the "new girl." She ingratiates herself immediately with everyone in school by whispering the correct answer to a kid stumped at the blackboard in math class. She smokes cigarettes from Nigeria and talks about her mother who works for an NGO in Africa. In gym class, she leaps onto the balance beam, standing suspended in the air, with one leg stretched out behind her, a vision of stillness and self-confidence. In the pack-mentality of high school, Sarah is an individual. It's seductive.
Shy asthmatic Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is thrilled when Sarah seems to choose hervas a best friend. Charlie's home life is upsetting. Her parents (Isabelle Carré and Radivoje Bukvicon) are so engrossed in breaking up, getting back together and then breaking up again, that they barely pay her any attention. Charlie and Sarah spend hours on the phone together, sneaking cigarettes in the school bathroom, going out dancing, their involvement so hermetically sealed that it is as though no one exists on the planet but the two of them.
There are danger signs early on. Sarah, with a breezy air of plausible deniability, drives a wedge between Charlie and her childhood friend Victoire (Roxane Duran). Watch how she does it during a scene when the three of them walk home from school. You almost can't catch her at it. Then, on a weekend trip with Charlie's family, Sarah pursues the guy interested in Charlie's mother. There's something ruthless about it. De Laâge is riveting all around, but is most compelling in those moments when she is not the center of attention. She goes entirely flat, waiting, waiting for the spotlight to turn her way again. Once the equilibrium is destabilized, Charlie starts to flail. Instead of backing off, she clings. Both have something the other wants. The gaps in personality, confidence, circumstance, are filled by the all-encompassing presence of the other.