Brummie native Felicity Jones is one to watch with standout turns in low-key films like Chalet Girl and before that, Sundance favourite Like Crazy. She reteams with the American writer/director of the latter film, Drake Doremus (after both winning awards at the festival), for another intimate story of romantic longing, but this time she is paired with a much older man.
Guy Pearce delivers a finely tuned performance as the angsty mid-lifer, Keith, who teaches music at a school in upstate New York while dreaming of playing cello on the big stage. He gets a bit crabby with wife Megan (Amy Ryan) when she calls it "a hobby", otherwise they have a healthy relationship and a happy teenage daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis).
Jones is Sophie, a British exchange student and gifted pianist whose arrival disturbs the fragile balance of harmony in their household. It's not intentional. Doremus isn't the kind of director who angles for obvious genre thrills. Sophie isn't a femme fatale, just an ordinary teenager and Jones gives a sensitive portrayal that begins with shyness in her new surroundings.
It's obvious this isn't going to end well, but Doremus finally veers away from his guiding principles by setting up melodramatic incidents to bring the drama to a head. As the hormonal teenager Lauren - who is quick to confide in Sophie - Davis has licence to brood, especially when the men in her life let her down, but she fires off in too many directions, blurring the focus of her rage.
Naturally, the missus picks up on the quiet pull of attraction between Sophie and Keith, and Ryan, too, is able to convey much with just a glance - the crushing disappointment and even guilt, despite her best efforts to be supportive of her husband. Her reluctance to speak out is also an expression of those complex feelings and exemplifies Doremus at his best, as a quiet observer.
He shoots the budding romance like a series of stolen moments. There are halting verbal exchanges, half-smiles and Pearce gazing wistfully out of windows (mourning his youth), all of which creates a dreamy, seductive atmosphere. The loud climax of the story may be a conscious move to shatter it, but when the smoke clears, there's nothing much left.
Love is too strong a word to describe what passes between Sophie and Keith because their heart-to-hearts are so full of idle, adolescent musings about life. They better reflect Keith's desire to relive those days than whatever drives Sophie. She stays an enigma - reacting to events rather than orchestrating them - so Jones must keep holding her breath, a talent yet to be fully unleashed.