Simon Baker jumps behind the camera in this soulful and assured adaptation of Tim Winton's award-winning novel.
May 03, 2018
If there's one thing that Breath just had to perfect, it's something that everyone can relate to: the experience of truly appreciating the ocean's wonders for the first time. No matter when it strikes, the feeling hits with the power of a wave — whether it inspires you to jump into the sea, bake by the shore or just stare at the water in awe. Adapting Tim Winton's award-winning Australian novel for the screen, Breath conveys this moment in a simple but potent fashion, through the twinkle in two teenagers' eyes and an excited exclamation. "I'll surf that one day. You dare me? I dare you to dare me!" 14-year-old Loonie (Ben Spence) tells his 13-year-old best mate Pikelet (Samson Coulter). They've just hitched a ride from their inland home town to the coast nearby and, from the look on their faces, they've found their calling.
In narration provided by Winton himself, Breath also describes the sea's allure in more poetic terms. "Never had I seen something so beautiful, so pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best thing a man could do," says the author as the voice of an adult Pikelet. But the movie doesn't just saddle its characters with relaying this perspective. Thanks to the expert assistance of water cinematographer Rick Rifici (Storm Surfers 3D, Drift), Breath boasts jaw-dropping surf footage that captures the full majesty of the ocean. Grey might come in 50 shades (or so we're told), but there are just as many hues of blue in Simon Baker's first film as a director, most of them found in Western Australia's stunning waters.
After locking their sights on the enticing waves in all of their crashing, thrashing glory, Pikelet and Loonie are keen to pursue their newfound passion. It's the 1970s and, while the duo are largely left to do what they please by their parents (played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake as Mr and Mrs Pike, and Jacek Koman as Mr Loon), surfing represents the kind of freedom and danger these eager teens equate with finally growing up. When they're not rustling up the cash to buy boards, they're convincing reluctant, reclusive ex-professional surfer Sando (Baker) to show them the ropes. Soon, however, Pikelet's attention is split — between catching bigger and bigger breaks with Loonie and his new idol, and spending time with Sando's injured aerial skier wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki).
Throwing its youthful protagonists into complex waters both figuratively and literally, Breath makes the most of its obvious metaphor. The movie's textured, detailed ocean imagery speaks to the sea's threats as much as its thrills, and really couldn't better encapsulate Pikelet's seething inner turmoil. In each meticulous, expressive shot, the character's restless energy, his desire to transcend his otherwise ordinary life, and his need to prove himself, all come to the fore. And while the parallels between the water's ebbs and flows and the film's exploration of one of Winton's favourite topics — blossoming masculinity — aren't particularly subtle, pairing them together is still effective on a visual, emotional and thematic level.
If Breath's images swell with feeling, then so too does its cast, with Baker coaxing fine-tuned performances out of his small ensemble. While The Mentalist star himself is quiet and contemplative in his return to Australia's film industry after nearly two decades, and Debicki finds the line between no-nonsense and vulnerable, Coulter and Spence bring the film to life with the same force as the curling sea seen so often throughout the movie. The young talents are actually surfers who learned to act, rather than vice versa, and their portrayals always remain genuine and naturalistic. Whether Pikelet and Loonie are splashing around, testing the boundaries of their friendship, or grappling with what it means to become a man, the teenage newcomers ensure this soulful, lyrical picture never merely wallows in familiar coming-of-age waters.