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‘The Deepest Breath’ review: Freediving documentary doesn’t go deep enough | Sundance 2023

By February 1, 2023No Comments3 min read

The opening moments of The Deepest Breath, directed by Laura McGann, are exhilarating. A diver dives deep into the ocean, perfectly streamlined along a vertical rope. Minutes go by as the diver keeps heading down, the sounds of a heartbeat growing louder with each second. Everything else is silent. 

This is a fantastic visual explanation for freediving—or, underwater diving that relies on breath holding without using a breathing apparatus. The sport involves many safety measures and divers for good execution, but it’s still dangerous. These first moments place viewers so firmly in the freediving sport that it’s impossible not to hold your breath along with them. Alas, such a strong start doesn’t save The Deepest Breath from its manipulative narrative structure and exposition-heavy beginning. 

Eventually, the film backtracks from those exhilarating first moments to interviews with the parents of the divers we’re going to focus on—Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan. It’s clear from these interviews something tragic has happened to these divers, but the film holds this mystery over you needlessly, creating mistrust between the audience and the filmmaker. A lot of the backstory we get ranges from Alessia’s first wins in the sport as a child to home videos of Stephen’s time in Africa. For a film about a niche sport that most people are unfamiliar with, spending this much time on the exposition of two people we don’t know is wasted screen time. 

When The Deepest Breath makes it past its clunky beginning and into the world of the freediving sport again, it hits its stride. Interviews with freedivers, doctors, and journalists explain how the sport works and the psychology of the divers who push the limit deep in the ocean. Footage of Alessia’s competition dives and Stephen’s journey to becoming a safety diver add to the worldbuilding of the sport and draw a clearer picture of how these two divers eventually come together. 

However, the film’s narrative structure ultimately hurts it. It lessens the impact of Alessia and Stephen’s stories by setting up a mystery that’s easily google-able and turning it into a cheap plot twist. The film’s focus is split between two subjects and doesn’t quite justify that focus. While Alessia’s journey to becoming a world record holder does coincide with Stephen’s role as a safety diver, this is largely Stephen’s story. The Deepest Breath spends too much time trying to maintain people’s interest in a mystery and the shock of a plot twist to realize they had an impactful story right in front of them—the importance of safety divers. Those sentiments are too little, too late in the film. 

There are incredible moments in The Deepest Breath from a technical standpoint. The opening sequence, paired with great sound mixing and music, gets the audience in the mind of a freediver. The film just tries to control the story too much, forcing a mystery box narrative when it didn’t call for one. 

Featured image courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Find more of our Sundance 2023 coverage here.

  • 'The Deepest Breath' - 5/10
Katey Stoetzel

Katey is co-founder and tv editor for InBetweenDrafts. She hosts the “House of the Dragon After Show” and "Between TV" podcasts and can be read in various other places like Inverse and Screen Speck. She wishes desperately the binge model of tv watching would die, but still gets mad when she runs out of episodes of tv to watch.

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