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Breathing Hard
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by Chris Parry

"To make indie films you need lots of faith. It's nice when that faith pays."
4 stars

Let's get the formalities out of the way early - Breathing Hard is a fantastic flick. It's funny, it moves along at a nice pace, it's original, well acted, and ultimately very moving. It showed at Cannes in 2001. It's won awards across the USA. Yet you've never heard of it. Why? Because it was directed by, written by, and stars people you've never heard of before. And that's the only thing stopping Breathing Hard from being an award winner in an altogether more mainstream circle.

Shot on weekends using borrowed money, Breathing Hard was clearly a labor of love for a group of people who have spent the best part of the last few decades on the periphery of Hollywood. You won't find a long stream of directing credits for Eric Neal Young, though he was once a Transport Driver on a 1986 Tommy Lee Jones TV movie. Writer and lead, John Rafter Lee, hasn't sold any scripts to Hollywood producers, but he's done the odd bit of voice work on Spawn and Aeon Flux. Supporting actor John Billingsley might be remembered by you as a Maitre'D in a 1995 Simon And Simon TV special... but probably not. And female lead, June Claman, hasn't exactly set the world alight since her role as 'Lady at the Riviera' in 1988's Couch Trip.

Yet, together these people have created something that is of far more value than the sum of its parts. Young's direction, on a tiny budget, with a crew of volunteers and far less equipment than he'd have liked, is great. Lee's script, written based on experiences he had with an elderly friend some time prior, is funny, poignant and original, while his acting is certainly good enough to keep attention our where it should be. Billingsley is hilarious.

And Claman... well, June Claman is the heart, soul and liver of this flick. She's mesmerising, absolutely perfect, dead-on funny and doesn't miss a single beat in a performance that deserves recognition on a much larger scale.

Lee plays Duggan, a failing screenwriter trying to sell a script about his grandfather's experiences with the IRA, which everyone else seems to refer to as 'the potato thing'. Billingsley plays his schlub buddy, Hammond, a man failing not only in his career (he's an actor - 'nuff said), but also in his love life. Until he gets himself a job at a psychic hotline, where he meets the woman of his dreams - Francesca (Laura D'Arista). Suddenly Hammond doesn't have time for his second (or third) job of driving around aging, bigoted thespian Emma (Claman).

And so it is that struggling Duggan and loudmouthed bitch-queen Emma become unwilling parners in crime. When Emma discovers Duggan's stageplay, Hitler's Head, she decides she must come out of retirement and play a part... whether he likes it or not, causing Duggan no end of stress as she changes lines and pisses off the other actors.

Thus begins a tale with overtones of Driving Miss Daisy, mixed in with a whole lot of originality, humanity, and damn fine acting. Claman's portrayal of crusty old Emma is the sort of performance you'd honestly expect from Dame Judi Dench or Helen Mirren or a pre-shakes Katie Hepburn. When she wants you to feel like she's frail, she's the frailest old dear ever seen on the screen, but when she wants you to think again, the mischief in her voice is palpable. She slams through the put-downs with the sarcastic style that made Dench a screen legend, lending a touch of English arrogance and grace to a character that could too easily have been one-dimensional if taken solely from a young male writer's perspective.

Emma: I was reading about some chap in San Diego who says he sees the face of Jesus in his wheelbarrow... I think I shall haunt your toilet bowl so you can think of me constantly.

Imagine the above spoken by a Shakespearian veteran as she delicately sipped tea and nibbled on a crumpet and you'll have some visual idea of the style and elegance Claman brings to this part. And she's honestly so good that she carries the show when those around her aren't up to speed.

Yes, there are things about Breathing Hard that could have been better. A side plot involving the cops is a bit of an inconvenience and duly treated as such in the editing room, and the score sometimes reminds you that you're watching a cheapie. But while this film could have been somewhat better, it certainly could not have been better for the money spent on it, and with June Claman chewing scenery like it was chocolate, I can honestly not recommend this film more highly, especially for an older crowd who can read between the lines and deal with characters that are more real than pretty.

If the gods of Hollywood ever decide that there's a market for films aimed at 35-50 year olds, maybe someone will discover this gem and give it the screen time it deserves. While we wait for that day to arrive, big credit must go to the Had To Be Made Film Fest ( for getting it into video stores and giving the makers and stars of this fine low budget feature a chance at showing their wares to a wider audience.

The Volume One DVD that this film comes on also contains two short films - My Pants and The Love Project. While The Love Project is a funny vox-pop look at the world of love, it does tend to drag on, but My Pants is the kind of excellent short that demands that director Emily Branham be given a hefty budget for whatever feature idea she has in her bottom drawer. Style, skill, and a nice helping of humor - this woman is a talent to watch. All in all, a great collection of work and well worth your rental fee.

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originally posted: 05/13/03 18:07:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Had To Be Made Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Had To Be Made Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/26/05 Charles Speronac I love the nude scenes! 5 stars
10/28/05 Sgt. Bilko, Jr. Ms. Claman is a sexy lady 5 stars
6/20/04 david glen sartison liz claman is fabulous and truly wonderful 5 stars
10/04/03 Barbara Clements Like the films Hollywood used to make and forgot we loved so well. A good movie. 4 stars
6/06/03 Jeff Kepnes You're right on the money. Quality film, and Claman is ALL THAT!!! Hilarious! 5 stars
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  17-Mar-2003 (NR)



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