A pretty British exchange student threatens to unravel an already fraying marriage in "Breathe In," a brooding drama from the writer-director Drake Doremus. It's a maddening mix of realistic characters, fine performances, ponderous pacing and oppressive mood lighting, none of which serve to cover up one central, glaring problem: a romance that never feels real.
"Breathe In" is Doremus' second collaboration, after 2011's equally unconvincing "Like Crazy," with the actress Felicity Jones, a winsome 30-year-old still able to play teenagers (she was Charles Dickens' young mistress in last year's "The Invisible Woman"). Here she is Sophie, a gifted classical pianist who arrives from England to live in the upstate New York home of Keith and Megan Reynolds. Keith (Guy Pearce) is a cellist whose career has plateaued, though he doggedly chases his dream by teaching and playing in a local orchestra. Megan (Amy Ryan) dismisses her husband's passion as "a hobby," which about sums up their strained relationship.
Pearce, an underrated actor whose many shining moments range from Christopher Nolan's brainy "Memento" to the goofy sci-fi flick "Lockout," is remarkably good as Keith, especially considering the limits Doremus puts on him. Drowned in blue-gray lighting (the rainy-day cinematography is by John Guleserian) and mostly prevented from speaking (the script is co-written by Ben York Jones), Pearce still shows us the dignity and humanity of Keith, a middle-aged, middlingly contented man suddenly facing temptation. Pearce's near-wordless scene with Mackenzie Davis, an appealing newcomer who plays Keith's teenage daughter (she and Sophie are friends) is easily the film's most powerful moment.
Like a lot of movies about bright young girls and disgruntled older men, "Breathe In" fails to answer a central question: What does the former get from the latter? The appeal for Keith is clear, but Sophie's motives are a mystery. We see her breath quicken whenever he's near, but we never see Keith offer anything -- emotionally, sexually or otherwise -- that could explain her reaction. As a result, the entire premise of "Breathe In" feels like a contrivance. The only reason these lovers fall in love is because Doremus wanted them to.
PLOT A musically gifted exchange student falls for the professional musician who is hosting her.
RATING R (language, sexual themes)
CAST Guy Pearce, Felicity Jones, Amy Ryan, Mackenzie Davis.
BOTTOM LINE A great performance by the underrated Pearce, but he's trapped in a thinly-written romance that never feels real.