Convincingly playing a character younger than she did in Drake Doremus’ last film, “Like Crazy,” Felicity Jones once again beguiles in “Breathe In,” this time as a foreign-exchange student whose presence complicates a superficially ideal New York household. If that sounds like a step in a less mature direction, think again, as Doremus and co-writer Ben York Jones try to examine the late-career insecurities of the family patriarch (Guy Pearce). While the plot — too low-key to be called a thriller — points toward obvious extramarital cliches, delicate changes in the overall mood reveal deeper truths likely to resonate with middle-aged arthouse patrons.
Working as a piano teacher at an upstate public school, Keith Reynolds (an unusually vulnerable Pearce) hasn’t entirely embraced the view that “those who can’t do, teach,” trying to do everything he can to keep his own music career alive. Lately, it all seems to hinge on his upcoming audition for an open chair in the New York City Symphony Orchestra. Wife Megan (Amy Ryan) tries to be supportive, but has long since shifted her focus from cheerleading her husband to raising their teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis).
Keith clearly feels trapped, a sentiment in direct contrast with the opening scenes, in which he and his family pose for their annual portrait, which they send along with a flattering summary of personal accomplishments to a mailing list of friends. All around them, long-married acquaintances seem to be filing for divorce, but it spoils nothing to reveal that the film ends a year later with the family taking photos once again — although this time, you can bet the accompanying letter will mention only a fraction of the incidents depicted in the film.
The catalyst for excitement, of course, is Sophie (Jones), a young British girl keen to experience New York City who miscalculated and ended up in a sleepy suburban community 90 minutes away. At first, the sullen visitor seems curiously uninterested in experiencing her new surroundings, preferring to retreat into one of her paperbacks than to accompany Lauren to the latest house party. (Oddly, the Reynolds have invited a stranger into their home at precisely the moment when their own daughter appears most in need of parental attention.) But there are hints that perhaps Sophie is running away from rather than toward something.
For example, she attempts to withdraw from Keith’s music class at school, despite the fact that her impromptu rendition of a complex Chopin piece reveals her to be a stunning natural talent. Sophie’s apathy for her musical ability no doubt accounts for some of her host’s growing interest, though even more alluring is the way she engages him in conversation about his dreams. Finally, here is someone who cares enough to ask what he wants, though his daydreams stop far short of picturing her naked on a bed of rose petals.
“Breathe In” isn’t overheated that way, and it may surprise some that the flirtations never reach fruition, despite the powerful cloud of sexual tension that develops. At school, Lauren grows jealous that her ex-b.f. (Matthew Daddario) is more interested in Sophie, while at home, Megan proves more observant than her husband realizes, picking up on the subtle clues to Keith’s unhealthy new fixation. But Doremus doesn’t seem particularly interested in the melodramatic aspects of his story, skipping over the arguments and fallout almost entirely, although Ryan gives Jones a look at one point that says more than any screaming catfight ever could(and besides, her cookie-jar collection is just begging to be smashed). The film focuses more on states of mind, using Dustin O’Halloran’s rich piano score to amplify the collective agitation, while capturing from each character’s perspective how one can occasionally feel like an outsider even while clearly part of something.
Working again with cinematographer John Guleserian, Doremus opts for a cooler palette, rendering these middle-class problems in tony blues and beiges. The handsome footage can be breathtaking at times, though whoever’s responsible for pointing the camera would do well to relax the arbitrary movement and direct their attention a bit more intuitively where auds want to be looking. The handheld style feels like an affectation, lending little in the way of realism, though there are a few fortuitous exception when the crew seems to be spying on potentially incriminating moments.