Starring Simon Baker. Rated 18A
A coming-of-age story without the Stand by Me sentimentality, Breath is a refreshingly original take on boyhood and on surf-movie tropes.
This handsome effort is also an impressive feature-directing debut for actor Simon Baker, a Tasmanian busy with The Mentalist series until recently. He produced and cowrote the screenplay with Gerard Lee, the frequent Jane Campion collaborator who created the BBC’s creepy Top of the Lake with her. Here, Baker and Lee adapted a highly regarded 2008 novel by Tim Winton, an author and playwright Australians have dubbed their “poet laureate of the beach”.
Winton narrates this tale of growing up in the 1970s, in a wild, seaside part of western Oz, as told from the (retro) perspective of 13-year-old Bruce Pike (quietly memorable newcomer Samson Coulter), known as Pikelet to best pal Ivan Loon (Ben Spence), called Loonie, of course. Pikelet goes to a posh private school, courtesy of his gentle parents (Aussie veterans Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake). What little we get of sun-haired bad boy Loonie’s family is not good, vaguely explaining his daredevil spirit.
Finding Pikelet’s true nature is what this Hemingway-esque memoir is about, and it comes through the boys’ growing obsession with surfing. This peaks when they meet Sando, a former pro surfer played by a scruffed-up Baker himself. They start hanging out at his bohemian retreat (he’s got Moby Dick on the bookshelf, alongside the Carlos Castaneda), and Sando gives them Zenlike instruction in the deeper arts of ocean-taming.
This is over the mostly silent objections of his American wife, Eva, played by Elizabeth Debicky, the tall, French-born Polish-Australian we know from her otherworldly presence in The Great Gatsby and the Guardians of the Galaxy flicks. Eva is a competitive skier suffering from a recent accident, and now her competitiveness has been turned onto Sando, in terms that viewers, and the boys, are not really privy to. Her morose nature has a certain allure to Pikelet, which comes into play when Sando and Loonie leave town abruptly. The two-hour movie loses its way in scenes that—somewhat paradoxically—grow morally darker and too tonally repetitive to sustain interest.
Breath recovers, however, and special marks must be given to cinematographer Marden Dean for sticking to a wintry, non-golden-light palette that evokes the ’70s without fetishizing that decade, and to Rick Rifici, who did the superb water photography—as he did for Adore, a fairly recent Aussie film that covered some similarly transgressive material. The writing is beautiful throughout, especially in the protagonist’s recollections of discovering the hidden parts of grown-up life that could be both “pointless and elegant”.