This review includes some mild spoilers in the first part, and bigger spoilers in the second half and content notes.
Charlie is a high schooler whose parents are constantly fighting. At school, she meets a transfer student, Sarah, whose mother works for an international NGO. The two of them become very close, and Charlie falls for Sarah, and tries to kiss her during a holiday trip to the country. Sarah becomes distant, apparently trying to “no homo” (well, “no bi”) Charlie, and also begins to bully her. Although Breathe appears to be some sort of high-production French Lifetime movie about cyberbullying, I would argue that this film is a horror film disguised as a movie about teenage drama.
More Spoilers Ensue
Sarah worms her way in with Charlie’s mother and friends, but instead of becoming Charlie’s girlfriend whom everyone loves, she uses them as character-witnesses for herself against Charlie’s increasingly distressed and erratic behavior. Sarah tells Charlie’s very personal secrets, has friends prank call/text her, gives away gifts from Charlie’s mother in front of Charlie, writes slanderous graffiti on the desks and walls at school, among other things. Charlie loves Sarah so much, and it’s hard to watch her take Sarah’s abuse. Watching the parallels between Sarah’s emotional abuse of Charlie and Charlie’s father’s emotional abuse of Charlie’s mother is chilling. Considering also that coming out to a friend to whom you are attracted can end in violence and that intimate partner violence for queer couples is frequently overlooked or misappropriated (the problem is blamed on their sexuality rather than recognized as abuse, especially abuse that might be rooted in biphobia, femmephobia, internalized misogyny, etc.), the film is often hard to watch as a queer person because these are narrative elements that affect me and my community.
However, as romantically and dreamily as the film shoots Charlie’s falling in love with Sarah (think “Girls Like Girls,” which made me cry a million rainbow tears), the film doesn’t ever justify or romanticize Sarah’s treatment of her.
Finally, Breathe would be so different in tone and in advertising if it were American–darker, more fraught with the fear of coming out, more use of scary or unsettling music, or even more with the “evil queer woman” trope. The film is a beautiful dream about falling in love with your best friend that turns into a nightmare about queer panic, patterns of abuse, and secret lives.
Some weeks later, I’m still not sure of how I feel about the film, other than that I now need to read some fluff and have a huge cup of tea, and maybe cry.
The novel was written and film directed by women. The main cast is about 4-5 women to about 2-3 men. All the main characters and most of the secondaries are white. Charlie is shown to be attracted to girls and boys, though she never defines her sexuality openly.
Contains: bullying and harassment, teens using drugs/alcohol/tobacco, alcoholism, emotionally abusive relationships, violence against children, respiratory horror (not being able to breathe), intimate partner violence, gas lighting, queer panic.