Some people regard the ocean as a place of catharsis, capable of placing them in an ethereal trance; for others, it’s a place of immense terror, suited only for the most fearless of daredevils. Bridging itself between these two groups is Simon Baker’s directorial debut, capturing both the beauty and horror of the seas.
Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and his best mate Loonie (Ben Spence) are two teenage boys living on the south coast of Western Australia. One day, after viewing a group of surfers from the shore, the boys are inspired to take up surfing, spending their free time on the water honing their skills. It isn’t long before they master the sport, their proficiency earning the attention of fellow surfer Sando (Simon Baker), a recluse who lives in the nearby bush.
In the months that follow, Sando becomes both a friend and father figure to the boys, trading tips and taking them to the best surfing spots. As that happens, tension grow between Pikelet and Loonie, each believing that the other is the favoured surfer. Simultaneously, the former finds himself being enamoured by Sando’s American girlfriend Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), feelings which conflict with his girlfriend Queenie (Miranda Frangou).
Baker’s debut feature as director comes courtesy of Tim Winton, whose novel of the same name provides the basis for the screenplay. Winton has long been acclaimed as one of Australia’s greatest storytellers, and has already had another of his books, The Turning, adapted for the screen. With Breath, Baker sought to faithfully bring Winton’s work to life, even hiring the author to provide narration from an adult Pikelet’s perspective.
The most enchanting aspect of Breath is the oceanic cinematography, which has been handled by Rick Rifici. His capturing of the sea is a work of art in itself, beautifully caressing the waves and focusing clearly on the surfing. All land-based photography, meanwhile, is the responsibility of Marden Dean, whose efforts aren’t as striking as Rifici’s, but are no less commendable.
Although this is a coming-of-age story – it does have two characters on the cusp of adulthood – Breath is not laced with the clichés and stereotypes that one might expect. The plot is uniquely Pikelet’s own, rather than one which has been utilised to death elsewhere, and the protagonist possesses few of the tropes associated with the teenage boys in this genre. If anything, Pikelet’s only crime is being a tad bland.
Breath is an interesting tale, but it feels as though it is one only half-told. For instance, the film shows on several occasions that Pikelet has a spasm, yet never explains how it came about, nor why it is continuing; it also has a scene where he witnesses an horrific car accident, but fails to examine how it affects him. Additionally, the narration briefly tells what became of Loonie at movie’s end, an outcome this reviewer would like to have seen explored more.
In his first feature as director, Simon Baker has crafted an intimate ode to surfing culture which beautifully captures the joys and perils of oceanic life, all while also delivering a unique coming-of-age story. But without an interesting protagonist, nor a tight script, Breath fails to be truly enlivening.