BREATH. Starring: Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Simon Baker, Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh, Jack Koman, and Rachael Blake. Directed by Simon Baker. Rated M (Mature themes, sex scenes and coarse language). 115 min.
This Australian film, set in the mid-1970s, is based on Tim Winton’s award winning novel of the same name, published in 2008. It tells the story of two teenage Australian boys, who form a close relationship with an older surfer. The film is shot on the coastal beaches of Western Australia that inspired Winton’s book, and Winton himself provides the narration of the film’s flashback sequences, involving the film’s main character, Bruce Pike, who looks back on his life, remembering the childhood friendships he formed as a young boy with his best friend, Ivan Loon.
13 yr. old “Pikelet” (Samson Coulter) and 14 yr. old “Loonie” (Ben Spence), grow up in regional Western Australia, and together they share a passionate love of surfing. Pikelet is from a stable home, and regularly attends his school. Loonie plays truant, has a violent alcoholic father (Jacek Koman), and “lives like he has nothing to lose”. The film effectively contrasts Loonie’s life with that of Pikelet’s father (Richard Roxburgh) and mother (Rachael Blake), who care for their son.
Pikelet and Loonie are in love with the beauty and majesty of the sea. Their dedication to the water and sport of surfing is noticed one day by Sando (Simon Baker), who gives the boys a lift in his truck and allows them to stash their surfing boards at his home, and he teaches the boys how to surf. The two boys are especially impressed when they learn that Sando was a famous ex-professional surfer, and that Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), his moody wife, was once a ski champion.
Sando teaches the boys to find the right spots in the ocean for surfboard riding, and how to surf the waves well, but he also urges them to take greater and more dangerous risks in the sea. Both boys yearn to have an identity that earns respect, and Sando is an adventurer they want to please. They are afraid of being seen by him, and other people, as ordinary, and are trying earnestly to make their mark in life. Loonie eases himself into risk-taking, and he cements his attachment initially to Sando by doing so.
Left behind, and with Sando away, Pikelet unwisely sexualises his relationship to Eva, who responds seductively to his attention. The interaction brings tension. Pikelet finally proves his worth to Sando, not by his involvement with Eva, or with Loonie, but by tackling the riskiest surfing of all - by riding Old Smoky, a legendary swell, roaring way out in the sea.
Winton’s book uses words to facilitate vivid images of the sea. Cinema faces the task of taking his words and producing compelling images that the words describe. The real nature of this challenge rests in the quality of the cinematography that can be achieved under the guiding hand of a sensitive Director. The movie might have focused on the physical prowess of surfers riding the waves, but it doesn’t. Rather, it produces images of the beauty of the sea, and the raging wonder of its waves, and joins their turbulence with the rough waters of adolescents trying to grow up. Finding friendship, love and affection, and avoiding disappointment come to be more important to Pikelet than conquering the waves. The water photography is wonderful. The ocean images parallel magnificently the ebb and flow of life depicted on land.
The acting in the movie is imposing. Richard Roxburgh captures the angst involved in a parent letting his son go. Simon Baker (who directs the movie) quietly paints the character of Sando, and Ben Spence and Samson Coulter capture the vulnerabilities of two impetuous youths - one a cheeky larrikin, and the other, a serious risk-taker in unexpected ways. Elizabeth Debicki, Sando’s neurotic wife, who takes Pikelet into dark spaces, delivers the movie’s powerhouse performance.
This is a gently-paced and unaffected film, that is intensely Australian in character. It is Pikelet, who lies at its real core, and the film commandingly shows his rite of passage from self-doubt and uncertainty to emotional maturity.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released May 3rd., 2018