Film Review: Breath

A delicately wrought rite-of-passage story and rousing surfing film that is larger than the sum of its parts.
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Breath is an elegiac coming-of-age tale and memory play about friendships, teachers and first loves that define identity and inform a lifetime. It’s also a rousing testament to surfing and its addictive primal pull. Make no mistake, this is no surfer-dude flick (Summer City, Newcastle), but rather a film touching on the mysterious and mythic power of nature, whose seduction lies precisely in its unforgiving danger. The thrill of risk and potential self-destruction are thematic motifs throughout this multi-leveled work.  Based on Tim Winton’s 2008 novel, the film is at once quotidian and allegorical, naturalistic and poetic.

Marking Aussie-born Simon Baker’s directorial debut on the large screen—he is best known to TV audiences as “The Mentalist”—Breath unfolds on the rundown, rural western coast of Australia in the 1970s. It centers on reticent, cautious 13-year-old Bruce, aka Pikelet (Samson Coulter), and his odd-couple camaraderie with the adrenaline-rush-seeking 14-year-old Ivan, aka Loonie (Ben Spence), who tempts fate at every turn, whether he’s hanging onto the side of a utility vehicle roaring down the road or surfing a 20-foot wave he is ill-prepared to tackle. The two boys are bonded by adolescent restlessness, malaise and an amorphous compulsion to rebel for the sake of rebellion—more so for Loonie than Pikelet, who’s always equivocating just a bit.

With little to do, they bicycle around the dirt roads that lead to steep cliffs overlooking the ocean, where they view local surfers careering through the turbulent waters. And, like homing pigeons, Pikelet and Loonie are increasingly drawn to the spot to watch them.

Looking back decades later, Pikelet recalls,“Never had I seen something so beautiful, so pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best thing a man could do.” His voiceover, interwoven throughout, is hauntingly performed by Winton himself, one of the most respected Australian novelists of his generation.

Short on cash but determined to become a member of this rarified subculture, Pikelet and Loonie build their own Styrofoam boards and then with money earned from odd jobs purchase shopworn fiberglass versions. They attract the attention of Sando (Baker, who also co-wrote the screenplay), a shaggy-haired, weather-beaten surfing icon (though we don’t find that out until later) for whom the sport requires the same philosophy as a life well-lived. To wit: fearlessness. How ’60s can you get?

In short order, Sando becomes their surfing teacher/life mentor. They are enthralled by him, though perhaps a bit fearful, too. Tough love is Sando’s pedagogical approach, though his motivations are not as fully delineated as those of his new protégés. Today the boys might view a character like Sando as a would-be abuser or even pederast. But back then, few thought in those terms. 

Either way, his liberated world is far removed from anything the boys are familiar with and all the more alluring for it. There’s his ramshackle house-on-stilts in the woods, filled with books by Melville, Conrad and London, and his laid-back American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a champion freestyle skier who has irrevocably injured her knee and will never ski again. Caution-to-the-wind recklessness is a pervasive metaphor.

The boys’ bond begins to fray as they vie for Sando’s attention and favor, taking an abrupt 180-degree turn when Sando and Loonie disappear to Southeast Asia to surf the waves, unceremoniously leaving Pikelet behind. Predictably enough, Pikelet loses his virginity to and falls deeply in love with Eva (shades of Summer of ’42)—not that there’s anything predictable in her particular sexual needs. Later she’s pregnant, insisting she’s carrying Sando’s child, but Pikelet is never entirely convinced that it’s not his. Neither is Sando, who accuses Pikelet of nothing but whose expression of suspicion, anger and, ironically enough, respect says it all.

There are so many telling details. Drawn to Pikelet’s low-key, gentle parents, who are in stark contrast to Loonie’s single, violent father, Loonie frequently spends the night at his friend’s house. After Pikelet’s mom (Rachel Blake) kisses her son goodnight, Loonie asks her to kiss him as well. His request is almost poignant, but a touch of mockery is evident, too.

Pikelet’s father (Richard Roxburgh) and his attenuated relationship with his son are equally layered. Dad, a solitary, inarticulate figure, cares deeply for Pikelet and understands that the feelings are not mutual. Pikelet finds his father dull, and when he goes fishing with him on a small pond, it’s a gesture of obligation and compassion. The viewer can’t help but compare Pikelet’s adventure-free jaunt with the grandeur and excitement the boys experience on the wild, untamed ocean. We see it through his eyes.

Spence and Coulter, experienced surfers and first-time actors, are revelations, delivering consummate performances as the cocky, damn-the-torpedoes Loonie and the more thoughtful Pikelet, the latter maturing onscreen as he re-evaluates concepts of bravery, coming to terms with himself and his own needs. Disappointment and self-discovery go hand-in-glove. In the peripheral role of dad, Roxburgh is a resigned and beaten man belying a quiet dignity. I especially liked Debicki’s Eva, charmer, exploiter and sad sack. Baker’s Sando is charismatic (though, as noted, not as fleshed out as he could be).

As an actor, Baker understands contradictory emotions and crosscurrents, eliciting superb performances from his cast. In his screenwriter’s hat, he and Gerard Lee (“Top of the Lake”) render a faithful adaptation of the novel, paring down the extraneous elements (that work brilliantly on the page but would not make it on the screen) in order to create a highly focused film that builds momentum.

From a cinematographic standpoint, the picture is stunning, thanks to the camerawork of Marden Dean and Rick Rifici (the latter filming the surfing and underwater scenes). The dark-hued natural settings embody desolate grandeur and infinite freedom, while the indoor scenes are claustrophobic. Most impressively, the visual elements are fully integrated with the introspective and wistful flavor of the story.

All in all, Breath is an unexpectedly soulful film that is larger than the sum of its parts.

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