Depression isn’t rational, and the strongest aspect of “A Mouthful of Air” is its refusal to propose a one-to-one explanation for the cause of the common, and debilitating, condition. Writer/director Amy Koppelman’s adaptation of her 2003 novel of the same name charts the plight of new mom Julie (Amanda Seyfried), who unsuccessfully attempts to take her own life shortly before her child’s first birthday, and then strives to cope with negative thoughts and feelings she can’t shake. There’s empathy to spare in this subdued drama, but also a fuzziness that leaves it on the outside looking in, and the latter will likely make it a tough sell when it debuts in theaters on Oct. 29.
Alternating between delicacy and preciousness, “A Mouthful of Air” begins with children’s novelist Julie caring for her infant son Teddy in the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband Ethan (Finn Wittrock). After kissing Ethan goodbye in the morning, Julie places Teddy in an exersaucer and, before her sister-in-law Lucy (Jennifer Carpenter) arrives with her kid for a playdate, she sits on her bathroom floor and slices her wrists with an X-acto knife. This act isn’t overtly depicted but, instead, communicated via tellingly juxtaposed images. Such obliqueness is emblematic of Koppelman’s ensuing approach to her story, which routinely omits basic details about its characters and their situations, or suggests them in unsatisfactorily vague ways.
It’s not immediately apparent that Julie has even attempted suicide, just as the reasons for her estrangement from her father (Michael Gaston) — seen primarily in flashbacks that are shot in a color-filtered, herky-jerky manner — are never fully explicated. For that matter, also unknown is Ethan’s profession, or the reason Lucy responds to Julie’s near-fatal incident by nastily chastising her during their first post-hospital get-together. It often seems like vital narrative pieces of “A Mouthful of Air” have been left on the cutting-room floor, and the result is a frustrating insubstantiality that’s exacerbated by the story’s lack of forward momentum.
Koppelman’s prime focus is the interior state of Julie, a well-to-do young mother who can’t shake her postpartum depression, be it while alone with her offspring, dealing with her supportive mother (Amy Irving), visiting with other women at a backyard party or spending time with Ethan. Seyfried’s large eyes — which Ethan habitually stares into, in order to gauge his wife’s circumstances — beautifully convey the way in which Julie’s stability and self-worth fluctuate at a moment’s notice. A swirl of everyday sights and sounds while at the grocery store, or an offhand remark about breastfeeding, are enough to trigger Julie’s worst thoughts and impulses, and “A Mouthful of Air” compassionately considers her ordeal as she tries to navigate a world, and a life of responsibilities, doubts and fears, that are frequently overwhelming.
An unexpected pregnancy is the catalyst for the film’s inevitable tragedy, and Seyfried and Wittrock capture the escalating intricacies of Julie and Ethan’s relationship through small glances and passive-aggressive comments. Yet Koppelman shortcuts her way through most of her plot points, including Julie’s traumatic upbringing, a late skirmish over her decision to ditch her medication following the birth of her second child and the climactic decades-later revelation about what became of her — not to mention fleeting scenes with Carpenter, Paul Giamatti, Britt Robertson and Josh Hamilton that reduce their turns to glorified cameos. Preferring to imply rather than show or tell, the film is too affected to tug at the heartstrings, and that also goes for its many animated sequences from, and conversations about, Julie’s children’s book, which seek to elicit tears to an alienating degree.