Cover: Breathe In marks exchange student’s unsettling effect on family

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Drake Doremus’ fifth feature-length film explores the fragile line between fidelity and transgression.

The most facile way to encapsulate the nut of Breathe In would be to note that an English foreign-exchange student enters the lives of an upstate New York family and throws the family into turmoil, particularly by tempting the brooding husband and father, music teacher and concert cellist Keith Reynolds, to stray.

But one suspects that the tinder for this conflagration had already been set and the right spark was bound to happen sooner or later.

Guy Pearce plays the role with restraint, displaying fissures of impatience in the beginning scenes, which portray what otherwise appears to be an idyllic family life of light-hearted affection and domesticity. He initially appears disinterested in Sophie, played by Felicity Jones, although their complicated relationship with music quickly forges a bond.

The tentative dialogue, strategically placed stretches of silence and pensive cinematography — for example, the way the camera lingers over a nervously tapping foot — combine to create a sense of growing unease that makes for engrossing viewing.

The film stretches credulity to a degree in the lapse of judgment required to allow a man to become romantically entwined with a young woman scarcely older than his teenage daughter. Modest, thoughtful and restrained in temperament, Pearce’s character would seem to possess the good sense to recognize that he is crossing bright red lines multiple times, such as when he gives the girl a beer, holds her hand and kisses her. But in that conceit perhaps the film points towards an insight about how the most reasonable of people can convince themselves that they can get away with infidelity.

Yes, Keith Reynolds’ wife, played by Amy Ryan, does belittle his efforts as a professional musician and refuses to entertain his desires to live a risky, creatively fulfilling life. But many husbands have toughed it out through far greater marital adversity.

As for Jones’ character, it’s not clear that she is being intentionally seductive, and her repeated efforts to extricate herself from the situation over and against her paramour’s protests suggest that she isn’t willfully destructive. What causes Jones’ character to get involved with an older, married man isn’t clear beyond loneliness and a need for friendship.

What is clear is that both Pearce and Jones’ characters are plagued with a sense of emptiness. It shows in the way the camera tracks their speech and facial expressions as they drift from one reality to the next — one moment displaying wholesome interest in the conventional family, the next disengaged in a fog of distraction, and then finally taking secret pleasure in one another’s company. Both are seeking a kind of freedom — Pearce’s character from the banality of domesticity and reining in of his creative ambition. Jones’ character, on the other hand, quests after relief from expectations set as a result of her musical virtuosity.

The suspension of disbelief required to buy into infidelity demonstrated by Pearce’s character might actually be its most brilliant narrative device. If Keith Reynolds were an obvious cad, it would be easy for the audience to condemn him and be done with it. The fact that in many ways he’s a likable person is what makes the film especially troubling.

As Breathe In careens towards its denouement, the film skillfully intersperses footage of the characters lives literally crashing around them. Doremus deserves commendation for making a film that offers no false promises of resolution or catharsis. When the credits roll, Pearce’s character will be more compromised and further estranged from himself than before he breached his family’s trust. The young woman played by Jones, we must assume, will pay the highest price.

Breathe In screens at SECCA on April 10 at 8:30 p.m.

— Jordan Green