Though director Dianne Dreyer’s “Change in the Air” opens on a shocking, attention-grabbing scene of a desperate elderly man (played by M. Emmet Walsh) deliberately stepping in front of a moving vehicle, the rest of the film takes its sweet time to ramp up to faux profundity about humanity, spirituality, friendship, and forgiveness. The title is not only an allusion to the mysterious young lady (played by Rachel Brosnahan) who changes lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood, but also applies rather morbidly to the literal change that flies from the hand of that suicidal man.
With religious hymns scattered throughout, along with mentions of miracles, Eastern philosophy, and overt metaphysical powers, it’s clear the filmmakers are aiming for the faith-based market. However, the film has about as much resonance as a “Coexist” bumper sticker. Without a compelling, coherent narrative drive, the film’s own spirit sags.
Wren Miller (Brosnahan) has recently moved to a new town and rented a modest, sparsely decorated apartment above music teacher Donna Olson’s (Macy Gray) garage. Constantly cloaked in subdued, soft fabrics and bathed in a halo of sunlight, she is an ethereal, beguiling presence — a tangible apparition. She receives sacks of letters daily, delivered by perky postman Josh Kassouni (Satya Bhabha), who begins to suspect that this reclusive tenant is somehow important. He can’t help but wonder: Where do all these letters come from, and what is she doing with them? The quest to unravel Wren’s secrets sends the town into a tizzy. Though she’s skilled at keeping to herself, her days of privacy end when a series of events stokes the curiosity of her neighbors and the authorities.
After Wren reports Walter Lemke’s (Walsh) suicide attempt, she’s forced to dodge inquisitive police officer Moody Burkhart (Aidan Quinn), who delves into her personal history to determine if she’s a grifter. She also tries her best to elude nosy busybody Jo Ann Bayberry (Mary Beth Hurt), who snoops in Wren’s apartment and steals her mail. Although Jo Ann’s ornithologist husband Arnie (Peter Gerety) urges his wife to stop meddling, he can’t help but feel Wren is somehow responsible for his recent rare bird sightings.
All of this would be much more engaging if Dryer and screenwriter Audra Gorman could make their shenanigans carry any emotional weight, or convey a clearer connection between the newcomer and her community. Apart from positive changes to Jo Ann, Arnie, and Walter, it’s unclear how Wren impacts the other characters’ lives: Walter’s caring wife Margaret (Olympia Dukakis) spends more time with Walter after his suicide attempt, but she never comes into direct contact with Wren. Moody is driven to figure Wren out, but his character doesn’t experience any personal change or catharsis because of her (one frustrating phone call to a pizza place and a maddening pharmacy visit don’t make for a fully-fleshed-out character arc). Donna rents the room to Wren, but Wren doesn’t do anything to heal her landlord’s hidden anguish. And while it’s lovely to see the neighborhood rally around laconic Walter post-accident, that’s not Wren’s doing either. For a “change agent,” she’s not earning her commission.
Despite all the feelgood wholesomeness the film spoon-feeds the audience, there’s a darker side left unaddressed. Many of the characters’ quirks and eccentricities aren’t cute; they’re corrosive. Jo Ann and Josh rifling through Wren’s mail is criminal and irredeemable, regardless of the film’s banal lesson about forgiving flawed folk. The same goes for Walter, who nearly saddles an innocent driver with the guilt and trauma of his suicide. It’s great that Wren’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl qualities don’t overtake the narrative, but it’s annoying that the cloying cliché even rears its ugly head.
Those simply seeking to bask in Brosnahan’s glowing talent should look elsewhere. Though everyone in this film’s world orbits Wren, she’s practically relegated to a supporting player. The material just doesn’t afford her any star-making movie moments. Hurt, who passionately pours her heart and soul into her performance, is given the most screen time. Unfortunately, the uninspiring calamity that befalls her character isn’t up to par with her abilities.
Overall, the film leaves audiences with many more questions than it ever dares answer. The tale that Dreyer and Gorman spin simply cannot sustain the mystery of Wren’s actions. We never learn why she moved to this town, or what drew her there. When we finally see what she’s secretly been doing with all those letters, it only raises more questions — and by then, we’re not invested enough to care about the answers.