In a small country town in the South West of Western Australia in the 1970s, two best mates navigate the choppy waters of adolescence. Thoughtful and introspective Bruce “Pikelet” Pike (Samson Coulter) and reckless, larrikin Ivan “Loonie” Loon (Ben Spence) might seem to have little in common, but they are united by a shared obsession with increasingly dangerous risk-taking, and a growing fascination with surfing. Those two drives are combined and exacerbated when they come into the orbit of Sando (Simon Baker), a reclusive former world champion surfer who urges them to join him in riding bigger waves and riskier breaks.
For his elegiac, closely observed first feature film as director, Simon Baker adapts Western Australian author Tim Winton’s 2008 novel of the same name to excellent effect. Baker’s film evokes both Winton’s unparalleled grasp of place and his astute sense of the rites and habits of Australian masculinity. In other words, when it comes to capturing the joys and traumas associated with coming of age in that particular time and place, Breath absolutely nails it.
Perhaps we can chalk that up partly to Winton’s own hand in the screenplay, which is also credited to Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie), but the directorial choices are all Baker’s own, and he draws excellent performances from his young cast. As our point of view character and narrator (Winton himself provides the adult Pikelet’s voice), Coulter does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, giving a truly impressive performance.
Admirably, Breath avoids the common pitfalls of literary adaptations by never over-explaining itself. Voice over is deployed when necessary to fill in narrative gaps or to comment poetically on the action, but the film definitely shows rather than tells, trusting the audience to read the emotional transactions being carried out. Coulter is given the challenging task of growing older before our eyes, and his path from reactive boy to proactive, self-determining man (or at least youth – Breath‘s temporal span is short, though its emotional journey is epic) is wholly convincing.
By contrast, Ben Spence’s Loonie is a more archetypal character who doesn’t grow so much as become who he was always going to be: aggressive, rebellious, wounded and, though he would never admit it, broken on a fundamental and secret level. There’s a Loonie or six in every country town: products of violent homes willing to risk life and limb for even the slightest sliver of affection because they have nothing else to offer, fiercely loyal and almost certainly doomed. Spence will remind you of every one you’ve ever met.
Baker is solid in support as a character who could have been unbearable in less dexterous hands. There’s a touch of the guru to Sando (the obvious cinematic reference point would be Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in Point Break) and he clearly delights in being mentor to the boys, dispensing advice and coveted wetsuits alike, but there’s a sad and wounded quality that grounds him. Indeed, his wound is externalised in the form of his American wife, Ava (Elizabeth Debicki), sullen and withdrawn after her ski-jumping career was ended by a catastrophic knee injury and, it is hinted, the reason he has withdrawn from public life.
If Sando is mysterious, Ava is all but unknowable, but in the way that mature, complex women are unknowable to adolescent boys – it’s worth keeping in mind whose point of view we’re seeing these events from. When Sando and Loonie take off on a surfing safari and Ava becomes the focus of Pikelet’s awakening sexuality, the film moves into murky and uncomfortable territory that contrasts with the potentially dangerous but jocular adventures of its first half. Drowning is always a possibility, and a broken arm might be the price of admission into the ranks of manhood, but sex, infidelity, secrecy and betrayal are much harder things to deal with than the possibility that you might break your damn neck in the course of some foolhardy stunt.
For her part, Debicki is tasked with the difficult job of giving a distant character a sense of inner life, but not letting us see exactly what that life is. For much of the film, Ava is either an obstacle or an enigma – a wan figure that limps around Sando’s rustic bush hut, drawing the boys’ gaze and rebuffing their attentions with icy disdain. The character could have been a misstep. Ava is not the focus here, for all that she is an object of fascination and obsession for several characters, but Debicki is able to elevate the character into something more than just a plot point or trophy, imbuing her with a weird alchemy of pain, wisdom, and self-destructiveness that both makes her a whole character and all the more alluring to young Pikelet.
That’s indicative of the messiness in Breath that is both refreshing and discomfiting. This is a literary adaptation that retains the sometimes woolly plotting of literature, rather than eliding away the rough edges and tightening up the loose reveries. Not every loose end is tied up, not every sin is paid for and forgiven, nor is every rift mended. A happy ending is impossible not because the film is pessimistic, but because it acknowledges that things don’t really end the way stories say they do – we just learn what lessons we can and keep on keeping on. That’s a bitter pill to swallow at any age, and a difficult theme to communicate effectively; that Breath does so is a testament to Baker’s directorial skill.
Still, the other key theme borrowed from Winton’s novel – the importance and addictive nature of risk-taking – is somewhat muted here. The film’s deliberate pacing and somewhat painterly visual style don’t communicate the adrenal thrill of danger that is inherent in the lifestyle depicted here. In focusing on the more cerebral and philosophical elements in play, Baker has pulled a little too far back from the visceral, and you’ve got to wonder what a more concerted attempt to marry the two might have delivered (Rick Rifici’s surf photography, however, is absolutely stunning).
That’s a minor negative, though, in the face of what has been achieved here. In Breath, we can hear two voices – Winton the writer’s and Baker the director’s – working in concert to a rare degree. This is an excellent, thematically complex, emotionally truthful coming of age story, and a truly impressive directorial debut.