Based on Tim Winton’s award-winning 2008 coming-of-age novel of the same name, Breath would have probably worked better as a short segment in 2013’s excellent anthology Tim Winton’s The Turning rather than a fully-fledged movie of its own. The first feature directed by well-known actor Simon Baker, Breath follows 13-year-old Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter), whose nicknamed ‘Pikelet,’ as he recounts his early days as a teen back in the ’70s (Winton providing voice-over narration for the older Pikelet). Living as an only child with his mom and dad (Rachael Blake and Richard Roxburgh) near the West Australian coast, Pikelet is a good kid who obeys his folks, unlike his best friend, 14-year-old Ivan Loon, aka ‘Loonie’ (Ben Spence), a self-destructive thrill-seeker who resides with his careless, drunken father Karl (Jacek Koman).
Bonding over bikes and daring stunts, Pikelet and Loonie, one day, ride past their comfort zone where they first catch a glimpse of surfing, which an awestruck Pikelet remembers as being akin to ‘dancing on water.’ This life changing moment compels Pikelet and Loonie to try the sport out for themselves; first by using cheap styrofoam boards (which they modify), until they can save up enough money to buy second-hand fiberglass ones. The teens soon run into the enigmatic Sando (Simon Baker), a hippy surfer dude who gives the boys a ride in his truck then offers to let them stash their boards at his ramshackle hippy home near the beach. Impressed by their dedication to the ocean, the laid-back Sando decides to take the boys under his wing (favoring Pikelet up until Loonie’s fearlessness gains him preferred treatment), teaching them about surfing and the sea, Sando pushing the teens to new levels of recklessness, eventually becoming their surrogate father and a kind of mentor figure.
While loafing about at his property, Pikelet and Loonie discover that Sando was once a professional surfer and that his cold, depressed American wife Eva (a very good Elizabeth Debicki) used to be an expert skier who lived for the thrill of danger, well, up until a knee injury abruptly ended her career. As time goes on, Pikelet grows more and more obsessed with his new ‘hobby,’ our protagonist finding himself falling under the spell of both Sando and Eva, the former teaching him about the joys of surfing and the latter the ecstasy of sex.
Before getting into it, I’ll admit that I haven’t actually read Winton’s book, and the film doesn’t exactly compel me to do so, which makes it safe to assume that Breath won’t win over any new fans. With that said, however, the wave-riding scenes shot by Rick Rifici, Drift (2013) — which feature no digital effects — and accompanying score by Harry Gregson-Williamsare, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), are truly breathtaking, as is the poetic cinematography by Marden Dean, Fell (2014), which superbly captures the small-town vibe of the boys’ logging village and its harsh coastline. It also helps that leads Ben Spence and Samson Coulter are seasoned surfers, filmmaker Baker opting to cast real-life sportsmen as opposed to actors seeing as ‘it’s a lot easier to act than it is to surf.’ Coulter is the strongest of the pair, delivering a multi-layered rendering of the youthful Pikelet, who matures throughout the story, even if some of his line reading comes off as stiff. His co-star Spence portrays Loonie as a rough type of Aussie ‘larrikin’ who’s willing to get into trouble just for the ‘rush’ of it, the character sharing similarities to another of Winton’s famous creations, Lockie Leonard. Either way, the boys do a decent job given their limited experience behind the lens.
Written by Baker, Winton and Gerard Lee, All Men Are Liars (1995), Breath sorta struggles when it’s out of the water (so to speak), the narrative moving at a slow, meandering pace. Given its themes of risk, adrenaline and pushing extremes, I expected something a little more, I dunno, gasping. It became somewhat frustrating just sitting there in the theatre, waiting for something of significance to occur. Thankfully, things do get wavy in the third act, after Sando and Loonie head to Indonesia for a surfing expedition and Pikelet is left alone with the alluring Eva. Just on that, Pikelet’s first sexual encounter, which takes place to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, feels a smidge formulaic and rushed, the whole thing coming and going with little in the way of impact, whilst a high school romance between Pikelet and a fellow student named Queenie (Miranda Frangou) is given next to no screen time, the relationship unfolding via a bunch of quasi-silent moments.
A right-of-passage tale that explores masculinity, identity and sexual awakening, Breath is a commendable first-time effort from Simon Baker, given that he’s only directed a few episodes of his television series The Mentalist (2008-15) prior. Admirable work aside, the slow-moving Breath is a far cry from the breath of fresh air that the Australian film industry needs right now. In any case, it’d be interesting to see how this one fares overseas. *Takes deep breath*
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Mr. Movie