A Mouthful of Air
by Hope Madden
Writer Amy Koppelman does not fear the murky, unpopular waters of an unredeemed female protagonist. She challenges you to face that character and recognize your own discomfort, your own desire to either wag your finger or to pity, but not to understand.
Her novel I Smile Back gave Sarah Silverman fodder for a blistering, unforgettable lead role in Adam Salky’s uneven 2015 film adaptation. What Silverman ran with was the notion that depression and trauma create selfishness, necessarily, and audiences hate to see selfishness in women.
It’s that tension that makes A Mouthful of Air so devastating. Directing her adaptation of her own novel, Koppelman taps Amanda Seyfried to play Julie Davis, a children’s book author and struggling new mom.
Seyfried’s performance aches with tenderness and raw emotion, but she never caves in, never makes Julie more sympathetic than she should be. Once again, the tension in the film is the reality that your own personal demons demand as much from those who love you as they demand from you.
A Mouthful of Air is not entirely forgiving of all those who orbit Julie — the sister-in-law (Jennifer Carpenter) who’s protective of her brother, the mother (Amy Irving) whose love and lived-in dysfunction play such a role, the father (Michael Gaston). Neither does it condemn. Instead, Koppelman attempts to show the human complexities at work in relationships weighed down with trauma.
Finn Wittrock excels at finding a human center — tender, desperate, angry, compassionate – in an underwritten, heroic character. The great Paul Giamatti lends his considerable talent to a small but important role.
As was the case with I Smile Back, A Mouthful of Air prefers to hint at past trauma co-mingling with chronic depression without spelling anything out. The result is both appealing in the way it avoids easy answers and problematic in its vagueness.
That vagueness is part and parcel of a script that, even with its bravery in depicting an honest truth about motherhood that most films avoid or deny outright, still feels superficial.
There’s power here, especially in Seyfried’s raw performance. For all its flaws, A Mouthful of Air is a film you’ll be thinking about long after the credits roll.