Chris is an amateur adult filmmaker and photographer, working out of his cramped, depressing apartment. But one morning before a day of work, he discovers that his ex-girlfriend has become engaged.
The news rattles Chris, who also finds himself facing a new applicant who arrives in the morning. He attempts to keep things business as usual, but finds that memories of the past keep intruding. The past and present intertwine in unexpected ways, and their collision opens up a new path for Chris.
Writer-director Stephen Takashima’s short drama focuses on a prurient milieu and character, but with its emphasis on the more interior emotional terrain of memory and regret, it’s notable for its understatement and psychological intimacy.
Part of this comes from the film’s naturalism, with hand-held camerawork and its attentiveness to unspoken thoughts and reactions in the performances and editing. It emphasizes the loneliness and emotional barrenness of Chris’s life, and his chosen hobby or job is an outgrowth of that. Rather than adding any sexiness of salaciousness to his life, it simply adds to the dreariness and disconnection of his existence.
The writing develops this sense of disconnection as well. The dialogue and action are pared down, even elegant, in its simplicity: the scope of the two-hander is limited to one location and one event that takes place within it. There isn’t a lot of background information about Chris or how he got to his present life.
We get a sense that life is like a lonely island for Chris, without many deep connections or genuine passions. This is echoed in actor Cole Simon’s subtle performance, which seems slightly affectless on the surface but then slowly unfurls to reveal the deep sadness at Chris’s core.
The storytelling soon weaves in a lot of Chris’s past and memories of his relationship with his ex, Emily, revealing layers of both tenderness and distance. The memories are more poetic and rhapsodic that the present action, indicating a warm and vital connection in his past.
But we also see the seeds of the restlessness and discontent, which link up to his current lifestyle — and to the young woman applying for a job in front of him now. Will the growing awareness of his past impact his present choices — and what will happen to the young woman in front of him?
“Breathing Through Trees” is very much about the interplay of past and present: how we muffle over the pain and regrets in the background until they come swimming to the surface, and how that awareness creates shifts in our choices or behavior — or doesn’t. It’s a painful avenue to growth and consciousness, and one not often deliberately chosen. But it’s also one that can’t be ignored, and it forces us to face ourselves and our choices, whether we are ready for them or not.