Carrie Hicks (Alexandra Sedlak) would seem to have a pretty decent life. An attractive young woman with a daughter, Emma (Mary Jackson Tatum), and a boyfriend, Rodney (Jason Bynum), she pulls doubles as a waitress at a local Nashville, Tennessee diner while hurrying off to gigs at local bars to chase her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter.
Carrie's life is anything but idyllic. Seemingly trapped in an abusive relationship, Carrie finally makes a run for it when Rodney's abuse lands him in jail and lands Emma in a wheelchair. Setting out for the small town of Nolensville, Carrie and her daughter are taken in by Carrie's Uncle Earl (Derrick Dee Drake), a kindly gent whose church folk do what they can to wrap themselves around Carrie and Emma and love them back to life.
Of course, as is so often true, the past doesn't always stay the past and sometimes it takes some uncommon courage and the strength of a small town to truly help you break the chains of the past so that you can live into the promise of the future.
Inspired by faith and grounded in the often stark realities of daily living, Why We Breathe tells a simple, even familiar story yet, rather refreshingly, refuses to be just another Hallmark-styled faith-based films and instead opts for gritty truths and raw but never exploitative realities. The experiences that Carrie and Emma have are experienced thousands of times a day every single day for women and children who experience domestic abuse, some end up finding a way to break the cycle while others never do so, or even more tragically, die trying to do so. While we never quite lose the sense of hope in Why We Breathe, that sense of menace and that sense of danger is never far away.
Why We Breathe is a true ensemble motion picture, a film where it may seem to be led by the likes of Alexandra Sedlak and Mary Jackson Tatum and Derrick Dee Drake but also a film where even the most bit parts are essentially in building up the desired impact of the power of belief, community, and those who are willing to risk themselves for others. As a low-budget indie, Why We Breathe may have some performances that are stronger than others but what it occasionally lacks in "performance" it makes up for with a rich honesty and a deep sense of naturalism.
Now then, Alexandra Sedlak does shine here. In the film's opening moments, she brings to mind Keri Russell's wonderful performance in Waitress and before long she's made the character her own. Before long, you find yourself rooting for her and you find yourself every single time that Jason Bynum's Rodney enters the picture because you know it's not going to be good. Sedlak brings Carrie to life honestly and earnestly, not quite always hitting all the dramatic notes but maybe even more importantly always making us care about her. An actress/director and singer-songwriter in real life, Sedlak offers up the layers of complexity often found in abusive relationships and not so subtly reminds us how difficult it can be to "just leave."
While I'd have loved to have seen a wheelchair-using actress in the role of Emma, Mary Jackson Tatum vividly brings to life the impact of an abusive relationship on a young girl and the difficulty in recovering from something she can't precisely remember. Tatum absolutely soars in a closing scene at the end of the film, a few moments giving the film an emotional wallop you won't soon forget.
The real, not so hidden gem of Why We Breathe comes from Derrick Dee Drake (Get On Up) as Uncle Earl, embodying spiritual groundedness and familial responsibility with a calm, healing presence that instantly makes you realize that no matter what goes down he's gonna' stand up. Drake's work is so strong here that he ought to have Hollywood on his doorstep. Like right now.
Jason Bynum, a former guitarist for the band Paramore, gives Why We Breathe its gritty aura as Rodney, a guy who's charismatic enough when he's sober yet a raging drunk when he's not. Bynum humanizes Rodney just enough to make Carrie's being with him believable, yet immerses himself in his darkness so completely you'll likely feel the need to take a shower after watching him. As Aaron, James J. Fuertes radiates a sort of small town charm and, intentionally or not, sort of plays out as the anti-Rodney in a myriad of ways.
Josh Moody's lensing for the film is relaxed and observational, though at times piercing in its intensity in scenes involving Rodney and in the film's emotionally heightened closing scenes. Music by Bryan D. Arata and Peter Schottleutner balances both the film's warm communal feelings and the unpredictability of its story, while director D. Erik Parks's ability to utilize familiar settings from the real life town of Nolensville gives the film an authentic feeling that makes it feel like home.
Why We Breathe is a film about the messiness of life and the reasons that we breathe our way through it all. It's unafraid to show the grit, yet also an unabashedly hopeful film that believes in the power of hope, healing, community, and faith. Currently exploring distribution options, Why We Breathe has a sort of Lars and the Real Girl aura about it, minus the anatomically correct blow-up doll, and should resonate with a wide range of audiences including both faith-based and more secular crowds.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic