The horrors of motherhood and mental illness as terror and drama have been done before. The Suicide Diaries is a grim look at childhood pain. Emma Roberts’ Abandoned did it most recently with a potentially haunted house and postpartum psychosis. Curiously, American Horror Story’s Delicate takes a supernatural approach to pregnancy with Roberts again at the helm. Some depictions of depression and motherhood are good; others are more exploitative than exploratory. A Mouthful Of Air is somewhere in between. The stellar cast makes the most of a heavy subject, but the underexplained ideas never come into focus. Perhaps that is the point, however. Amanda Seyfried is typically luminous, Paul Giamatti is always reliable, and Amy Irving gives a surprisingly natural performance that speaks volumes.
Seyfried’s Julie is a successful children’s author with a beautiful baby and a doting husband, handsome Finn Wittrock, also from American Horror Story. She has everything on the surface. It all should be perfect, and yet it isn’t. Her books are all about facing your fears, yet she can’t seem to face her own. She is deeply depressed, and one afternoon while waiting for her sister-in-law and niece to arrive, she slits her wrists while watching her baby in the mirror. Her sister-in-law saves her, but as the remainder of the movie plays out, we are reminded that mental illness and postpartum depression is a struggle that is often stigmatized or misunderstood.
A Mouthful Of Air Explained
Although Julie did not successfully end her life on that first attempt, her situation did not improve. Her friends and family look at her like a victim, a patient, or a selfish child, but rarely as a person. She is terrified that she isn’t enough for anyone in her life. Her self-doubt has convinced her Ethan(Wittrock) is going to leave her, and crippling anxiety constantly plagues her about her parenting skills. Julie knows something could have happened to her baby when she attempted suicide earlier, and she worries that he is in danger because of her. For her, suicide has become a compulsion, an obsession, however unwanted. Her devotion to her children fights against her suicidal ideations until the very end.
Her family is equally conflicted about how to help her, making things even worse. Having those you love speak for you erroneously is frustrating and debilitating. Both of these are things Julie does not need. She needs help, care, and support, not to be argued over like a child. When Julie finds she is pregnant with their second child, things escalate.
Anyone touched by depression knows it can look just like Amy Koppelman’s A Mouthful Of Air. It is quiet and empty. It’s overwhelming and all-consuming, crashing in waves, taking over lives before descending into a deceptive calm. For Julie, things spiral out of control when she becomes pregnant with their second child. She could barely handle the first one, and after her recent suicide attempt, the timing wasn’t great. Her medication is a concern for her. She worries it may harm her baby. Her doctor and husband disagree, but the nagging idea refuses to go away. Most of us had beats where we obsessed about everything we ate, did, or didn’t do during pregnancy. Julie’s mental illness makes it 1000 times worse.
Against her doctor’s orders, Julie stopped taking her medication. Ethan is deeply concerned and should be. She gives birth, and Ethan and Julie find their way back to each other and themselves. Ethan helps ease her tension by doing what partners do best. They remind us we are enough and can be happy. Partners support without judgment and care without smothering. Partners should not be transactional, and their efforts should never be punitive. Just when Julie is learning she can be happy again, her mother shows up with her estranged father in tow, and everything goes south.
Julie’s father’s abuse
The details of Julie’s life crystallize in snippets of memories, throwaway conversations, and childhood artwork. Her father was abusive and cruel. A Mouthful Of Air is clearly drawing parallels between childhood trauma and mental illness. Most parents’ biggest concern beyond their child’s death is that something they say or do will irrevocably damage their confidence, stability, and sense of right and wrong. This is precisely what Koppelman’s film is driving towards. Julie has some lovely memories with her father, but devastating ones overshadow them.
Although she lets him back into her life, and he tries to be the father he should have been, he sees Julie’s scars and knows he is at least partially responsible. Perhaps he also suffered from depression or anxiety, and his cruel behavior towards her resulted from his struggle. The film doesn’t ever explain this further, but his guilt obviously tormented him. Maybe it was the fleeting emotion of a sadist, or perhaps it was the acknowledgment of a fellow sufferer. While her father cried, Julie shut down. Her face becomes blank. This is likely a defense mechanism she developed as a child that exacerbates her problems as an adult.
Julie needs to communicate and be heard, but her childhood robbed her of those essential skills. She may have navigated the brunt of her interaction with her father, but the damage was done. She was already fragile, and little by little, all her fears crowded in until one day when her newborn wouldn’t stop crying, she had to leave Teddy outside briefly. The idea she was putting him in danger and not being a proper parent overwhelmed her, and we see her take a box cutter outside after putting her daughter in her crib. Although we don’t see what happens next, Ethan’s reaction confirms that Julie tried and was successful in committing suicide.
Pregnancy, Parenting, and Postpartum
Society is as much to blame as anything. Despite all those perfectly curated Mommy blogs out there, parenthood and pregnancy are challenging and not all that pretty. Sure, there are moments of unbelievable joy, but just as many are ugly, sleep-deprived, wild-eyed roller coaster rides. We should discuss those more instead of stigmatizing exhausted parents trying to do their best. It would be helpful if everyone knew they weren’t damaged or strange for not loving every part of being a parent.
A Mouthful Of Air got some negative reviews for not being as revelatory about depression as it should be. The point of showing depression without answers is precisely that. To show that mental illness often has no root cause. It sometimes has no event or genetic marker that predicts it. Especially with postpartum depression, there are sometimes no signs. Julie loved her children and desperately didn’t want to leave them, yet she felt like she had to because her fear was so great and her pain so profound. Did her father suffer from anxiety? Was he abusive to the point of destroying her young mind? The film deliberately doesn’t give those answers because it could be both or neither of those things.
In Julie’s case, it seems Koppelman wants us to conclude that he is a catalyst and a nagging source of terror for her. What he did was never fully explained. His abuse could have been mental, physical, or sexual. In any case, Julie doesn’t want to become her father. She doesn’t want to mistreat her children. Deep-seated trauma has contributed, if not outright, caused her anxiety and depression. We don’t know exactly what he did to her as it isn’t shown.
Her mother is ready to forgive him and may not have known how bad things were. They happened, though, and left Julie incapable of shaking her fear and depression. Her family’s confusion, concern, frustration, and anger worsen a bad situation, just as it does for many people. Julie lacks the communication skills needed to express her feelings, but even if she didn’t, she likely would be wary of expressing her thoughts because she would be treated differently as a result.
Julie is terrified to get a house in the suburbs because she is afraid of commitment, change, failure, and a million other things that are largely baseless and yet keep her up at night. Mainly, however, she doesn’t want to move because she can’t guarantee she will be alive to live in the house. She is horrified about becoming her father and having her children hate her. Parents should love unconditionally, but children don’t always have to. Anyone who is a parent knows that kids push boundaries and can say terrible things while hopped up on hormones, anger, and frustration. Julie is so tortured by the idea that her children will be embarrassed by her or hate her she is broken down until there is no relief but death.
Julie’s drawings and book
In the film’s closing moments, we see a much older Ethan giving Julie’s book to her daughter. Hopefully, this and only this will be her legacy to her children. To face their fears and reach for the stars, knowing their troubled mother loved them and didn’t abandon them. It’s a crushing ending filled with all the unspoken sentiments of the film. There is no easy answer. Even well-meaning efforts can be wrong; the problem is unique and complex. Her books all deal with fear, signifying that Julie has probably always dealt with anxiety and depression due to her childhood. That means the story is less about postpartum and more about trauma and mental illness. In this light, it is about the legacy of abuse.
Ultimately, A Mouthful of Air is just what it sounds: impossible to see, feel, or define. It’s the Nothing in The Never Ending Story. It provides no sustenance and yet is as essential to life as breathing. It is a different kind of horror. The horror of knowing deep down that you can’t protect your kids and won’t be around to watch them grow. Horror doesn’t always have to be loud or splashy. Sometimes, it is in the quiet of a half-choked back sob or the hollowed-eyed exhaustion of a tired mom. Koppelman’s film captures the hope, horror, and heartbreak of depression and its effects on everyone around them.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.