Amy Koppelman makes her directorial debut with A Mouthful of Air, based on her novel. Having an author direct an adaptation of their own work is dicey, at best. For every Stephen Chbosky/The Perks of Being a Wallflower, there's a Stephen King/Maximum Overdrive. Just because you can tell a good story on paper doesn't mean you automatically know how to tell one on a screen. Koppelman perhaps fails to get the maximum mileage from her book, but she certainly delivers a respectable film that deserves to be seen.
Amanda Seyfried plays Julie Davis, a writer of children's books. After the birth of her child, Julie begins experiencing post-partum depression. She makes a suicide attempt during this time. Husband Ethan (Finn Witrock) tries to be supportive; others, including sister-in-law Lucy (Jennifer Carpenter), blame her for what happened. The effort to stay stable becomes rocky after Julie learns she's pregnant for a second time. This brings about multiple questions she has to deal with, such as whether the depression will return and whether she should go off her meds during the pregnancy. A second, related angle deals with Julie's father (Michael Gaston), who has been absent from her life for a long time. Via flashbacks, we get the impression that something happened between them that might have spawned her depression.
A Mouthful of Air obviously deals with challenging subject matter. It goes down easily because Koppelman studiously avoids melodrama. This is a quiet, observant film that doesn't have any big “showy” moments (i.e. “Give me an Oscar!” moments.) Even Julie's suicide attempt is suggested with subtlety. In choosing this path, the movie is able to achieve a more thoughtful vibe. Rather than becoming distracted by histrionics, we have time to contemplate the various emotions Julie is going through, as well as the reactions of those around her. A dramatically compelling idea emerges, which is that everyone walks on eggshells around her, afraid something they say or do will set her off. This, in turn, exacerbates the feeling that no one understands her. The story potently points out how alone women suffering from post-partum depression can be, even when surrounded by others.
Amanda Seyfried does the best work of her career as Julie. The actress has to convey so much with just facial expressions, given that her character holds a lot inside. Even when Julie is putting on a brave face for those around her, we can tell if she's starting to fall apart inside. And when she's at her lowest, our hearts break for her. Seyfried hews closely to the film's quiet tone, doing work that encourages you to look into her eyes to understand what's happening. This is a magnificently nuanced performance. Finn Witrock does nice supporting work, capturing how Ethan lives in perpetual fear that his wife will sink into the abyss again.
As director, Koppelman occasionally leaves some drama on the table, so to speak, cutting away from scenes when the movie could have been digging deeper. This is most true during the sequences involving Julie's father. A couple animated sequences don't really work, either, particularly the one that serves as the finale. They're meant to infer that Julie draws from her life for the books she writes/illustrates, yet they kind of shift the tone to fantasy a little bit. A Mouthful of Air is strongest when it keeps itself rooted in reality.
Fortunately, that's what it does for the majority of the time. The film isn't a soap opera about post-partum depression, it's a thoughtful look at what women endure when the darkness seems to be closing in on them right at the time when life should be at its brightest. The story will definitely hit home for viewers who have been in Julie's shoes. For everybody else, it will be an eye-opener.
A Mouthful of Air is on digital and on demand January 4, 2022.
out of four
A Mouthful of Air is rated R for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.