By: Graeme Howard
Simon Baker’s directorial debut Breath (adapted from the international best seller by Tim Winton) is, at first glance, a by-the-numbers coming-of-age surfing tale. However, the audience is treated to a thought-provoking surfing drama that succeeds in capturing the raw nature of the sport, while also exploring the spontaneity of youthfulness and the joyful exploration of curiosity, fear, and self-understanding.
Set during the 70s, Breath tells the story of childhood friends Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) as they live, explore, and grow up on the Western coast of Australia. The constant hunger for adventure leads the boys to discover and become obsessed with surfing. The dichotomy between Pikelet’s very real fear of surfing and Loonie’s risk/reward lifestyle creates a believable friendship. This obsession with adventure and surfing leads to an unlikely friendship with a semi-retired surfer Sando (Baker). As the unlikely friendship develops, the boys are continuously pushed to their limits as they must confront the danger that is associated with surfing the largest waves.
This is one area where Breath soars. The film’s cinematography is captivating, capturing the tranquil coastal life of Australia while also really nailing the ebb and flow of the ocean and its relationship to humanity. Baker’s keen eye as a filmmaker (along with Marden Dean and Rick Rifici’s skills as cinematographers) provides immense thrills as we watch these young boys attempt to surf waves that most adults would typically shy away from.
One area where the film is not so successful is the development of a romance between Pikelet and Sando’s Wife, Eva (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Elizabeth Debicki). It’s easy to understand what the filmmaker is going for by focusing on the relationship between the two characters, providing an edgy shift to the lighthearted nature of the film. Unfortunately, the relationship never feels genuine. Samson Coulter’s almost-blank expression does not reflect enough of the emotions an adolescent would process through such a relationship. Thankfully, these moments are minor in comparison to the rest of the film.
Breath provides a captivating look at youthfulness and the struggles of growing up, despite a jarring tonal shift in the third act. I am seriously looking forward to Simon Baker’s next film.