The wispy depression drama “A Mouthful of Air” floats more weighty ideas about mental illness and suicidal ideation than its episodic narrative can accommodate. Written and directed by Amy Koppelman (“I Smile Back”), this distractingly tidy character study hints at, but never really digs into, the social isolation and emotional instability that keeps Julie (Amanda Seyfried), an anxious children’s book author, stuck in her head and apart from her loved ones after she tries to hurt herself.
In most scenes, characters baldly state how they feel and then move on to the next scene, which reduces our view of Julie to a series of canned confrontations. And while Julie’s story seems to have been designed to resist trite, self-serving clichés about mental illness — the kind that focus on grief and blame — “A Mouthful of Air” often invites viewers’ judgment without giving us meaningful or revealing details about what Julie’s feeling.
“A Mouthful of Air” mostly concerns Julie’s struggle to be heard and understood by her loved ones and caregivers. She tries to conform to the lightly expressed but apparently heavy expectations of her husband Ethan (Finn Wittrock) and her mom Bobbi (Amy Irving): Bobbi wants to talk about her estranged and mentally ill husband Ron (Michael Gaston, “First Reformed”), while Ethan wants to focus on moving from his and Julie’s Manhattan apartment into a suburban house. Meanwhile, Julie struggles with anti-depressants that were prescribed to her by Dr. Sylvester (Paul Giamatti), a genial but unbearably folksy psychiatrist. And in addition to preparing her next book, Julie also takes care of her infant son Teddy while pregnant with her next child.
A lot of Julie’s emotions are reduced to words that are left unspoken or private moments that are either interrupted or conflated with mundane questions like, “Which shade of pink should the new baby’s bedroom be?” and “Will a pink bedroom give Julie’s second child (a girl) a complex about her gender?” Julie bears with everyone’s dismissive reassurances and sometimes even seeks them out, especially in her conversations with Ethan, but also when her generally supportive gynecologist Dr. Salzman (Josh Hamilton) proudly tells her that “because of you,” he now asks his patients “how they’re doing, and not just physically.”
The banal nature of these scenes often seems to be their reason to exist, which gets frustrating given how dramatically contrived and narratively flat the movie can be. Julie’s first scene with Dr. Salzman doesn’t stop or build around an exchange of ideas or sentiments. They talk about her medication, what she’s doing to celebrate Teddy’s birthday and, later on, the gender of her second child. Dr. Salzman asks her, “How are the anti-depressants working for you?” So she tells him: “I was walking through a world that is black and white, and now I’m just starting to see color again.” That kind of plain, uninflected back and forth may be lifelike, but it’s also generally underwhelming.
“A Mouthful of Air” often feels like a low-key airing of grievances, only set in a neutral space where nobody’s feelings can get hurt in an explicit or cathartic sort of way. That stasis also seems to be the point, as we see when Julie is gracelessly confronted by her sister-in-law Lucy (Jennifer Carpenter, “Dexter”), who, against Ethan’s wishes, insists on scolding Julie, telling her how selfish she was to hurt herself given everything Ethan’s doing for Julie and their family. That scene ends with a warm but irresolute gesture — Lucy and Julie hug it out — that also doesn’t build to anything later on.
It’s just one sketchy moment among many, like when Dr. Sylvester advises Julie that she can’t abruptly stop using her anti-depressants, as she suggests partway through the movie. He tells her that “you can be strong as Hercules himself, and if you fall into a pool, and you don’t know how to swim, you’ll drown.” So she tells him, “I know how to swim.” That’s it; that’s the scene’s climax.
Even the biggest, most emotionally devastating moments feel small and trite in this context, like when Ron and Julie have a moment as he paints her second child’s bedroom, or when, in an early scene, she thinks about hurting herself before she actually does it, somewhere, off camera. Seyfried is shown holding an X-Acto knife and then cries in extreme close-up while her son Teddy watches “Sesame Street” on a CRTV in the other room. We have to come to our own conclusions, though an overwhelmingly sad “Sesame Street” song cue — “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” — helps us to make up our minds.
The makers of “A Mouthful of Air” spend so much time defining their characters’ boundaries that they ultimately force viewers to fill in the most meaningful gaps in Julie’s story. And while it’s sometimes nice to see an adult drama consider maternity and suicidal depression with care and sensitivity, there’s not much room for emotional depth or nuance in a movie that shows you half of a crying woman’s face as she tries to kill herself while Jim Henson sings, in character, about where he doesn’t want to live.
“A Mouthful of Air” opens in U.S. theaters on Oct. 29.