A Mouthful of Air opens with a warning: “The following film may be upsetting to people with a history of depression and anxiety.” The story of a young mother subsumed by paralyzing feelings of inadequacy would be troubling to anyone, but that doesn’t necessarily make it involving. Though it’s not without cinematic touches and affecting, sometimes harrowing moments, and even with a convincingly fragile and unmoored Amanda Seyfried at its center, the drama is often hampered by an instructive sensibility that gives it the air of a feature-length PSA.
Seyfried plays children’s book author Julie, living a seemingly charmed upper-middle-class life in Manhattan with her husband, Ethan (Finn Wittrock), and their infant son, Teddy. Glimpses of a drafting table and what appear to be blueprints suggest that Ethan is an architect, but like nearly every character here, he exists chiefly as a satellite of Julie and her deepening, all-consuming pain, the actor finding whatever nuanced notes he can in the role. The couple’s apartment is so aggressively candy-colored that things can’t possibly be right. And they aren’t: As the main action begins, Julie is recovering from a suicide attempt, and becoming adept at covering her scarred wrists with strategically placed bracelets and scarves.
A Mouthful of Air
Sensitive and well-intentioned but strained.
Director Amy Koppelman has focused on mental health in her three novels — one of which, I Smile Back, was made into a film that provided a showcase for Sarah Silverman but not much in the way of narrative dimension. At the helm of her first feature, Koppelman does a better job of creating a lived-in world than that 2015 release achieved. Trading the class and social observations of her novel for a more sensory first-person experience, she has made an empathetic work. But it’s also largely devoid of momentum.
The close-ups of Seyfried that Koppelman and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco rely on are studies in masked emotion, and the essence of the film. Even as she creates picture books about a spunky character named Pinky (written and illustrated by Koppelman and brought to animated life by Mark Samsonovich), Julie’s thoughts are often a dark spiral of what-ifs. Her every smile is clouded by excruciating doubt. A tearful, agonized close-up caps the pre-title sequence; Julie has chosen an X-Acto knife as the solution to her problem, and even though the movie avoids gruesome detail, the sense of churning, decisive despair makes the moment tough to watch.
Koppelman’s screenplay moves among several time periods, including a few flashbacks to Julie’s childhood that strain to clarify her relationship with her father (Michael Gaston) and her lifelong struggles with anxiety. (In a brief jump to the future, Finn Wittrock’s brother Dylan appears as a grown-up Teddy.) The lack of cellphones and flat-screen TVs, not to mention all the stonewashed jeans, subtly set the central events in the late 20th century, the precise year revealed well into the film: It’s 1995, which, for the purposes of the drama, is the relative dark ages when it comes to most people’s understanding of postpartum depression as a medical problem rather than a maternal failing.
Still, Julie receives guidance and pharmaceutical treatment from an avuncular psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) who has handy illustrative stories for every point he makes. One of these involves a poem by Sylvia Plath, and goes to the heart of the film: the terrible disconnect between a keen appreciation of life’s beauty and the compulsion to die. Julie’s mother (Amy Irving) is supportive, but, as signaled by her plans to have some “face work” done, she’s very concerned with appearances. She talks encouragingly to Julie of the need for a “reset, letting everyone know you’re OK,” as if other people’s comfort is the chief issue.
Mother and daughter dance around vague references to Julie’s absentee father, his abusive behavior and his own mental health issues. When he does show up, Gaston injects a wrenching note of self-awareness and shame. A brief exchange between Julie and her building’s super, Hector (John Herrera), likewise offers a shot of emotional intensity, and both instances accentuate, by comparison, how inert most of the drama feels.
In a sequence that finds Julie all lost in the supermarket, and another that captures the sensory overload and feelings of danger she experiences at a suburban backyard party, A Mouthful of Air makes her torment fully felt. But as finely tuned as Seyfried’s quicksilver shifts in mood are, the movie suffers by sticking so close to Julie. As Wittrock’s watchful, worried Ethan tells her in a rare moment of impatience: “You’ve left no room for me to get mad at you.”
The strongest scene is alive with a thorny unpredictability that’s sorely lacking elsewhere. In her first confrontation with Julie since her suicide attempt, Ethan’s sister Lucy (Jennifer Carpenter, compelling) can’t contain her anger and hurt over being the one who, with her own young child in tow, found Julie unconscious and bloody on the bathroom floor. “It’s always about you, Julie,” Lucy says — callously, yes, but also expressing the understandable trauma, frustration and terror of being shut out of something so devastating even as you’re directly affected by it.
This too is one of the difficult subjects Koppelman is addressing. There’s understanding and compassion to spare in the story she and Seyfried tell. As it tries to strike a balance between the whimsy of Julie’s children’s books and the oppressiveness of her mental state, it could have used more messiness and friction, more room to breathe that mouthful of air.