'Breath': Film Review | TIFF 2017

Breath - STILL 3  - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
A deep dive into the choppy waters of adolescence.

Simon Baker makes his feature directing debut with this adaptation of Tim Winton's coming-of-age novel about a pair of teenage surf enthusiasts mentored by a big-wave veteran.

No author has written more evocatively than Tim Winton about growing up in regional Australia in the 1970s. His 2008 novel, Breath, enriches its themes of teenage self-discovery, daredevil recklessness, friendship, love and disillusionment with uncommonly beautiful descriptions of surfing, steeped in grandeur and lyricism. Those elements, along with the flavorful Australian vernacular, translate effectively to the screen in Simon Baker's debut feature. Observed with warmth and sensitivity, this is a rewarding coming-of-age drama that features terrific performances from two young newcomers in the central roles.

Running almost a full two hours, the movie might be a tad leisurely in its pacing for mainstream commercial tastes, with a somewhat ambling midsection. But one could also argue that Baker and his co-screenwriters Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) and Winton were correct to take their cue from the title, giving each important plot point and character the necessary respiration and space to resonate. In addition to his assured direction, Baker's presence on-camera in a key role will help expand the audience beyond Australia, where the critically acclaimed book's popularity should ensure a healthy release.

Respect for the source material is evident throughout, and it was a nice touch to have Winton do the voiceovers of the main character as an adult looking back, often lifting nuggets of dialogue directly from the novel. The movie also shares the indelible sense of place that is another signature quality of the author's work, evincing a tangible connection to coastal locations and bushland in the southern part of Western Australia. In addition to the picturesquely named Peaceful Bay, Breath was shot in the towns of Albany and Denmark, in settings that conjure the mid-'70s time frame without requiring a lot of fussy period reconstruction.

Two inseparable best friends in their early teens, Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter), nicknamed Pikelet, and Ivan Loon (Ben Spence), dubbed Loonie for good reason, have markedly different home lives. Pikelet's parents (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) are caring and affectionate, while Loonie lives with his violent drunk of a father (Jack Koman). He hurls himself at life like a kamikaze pilot, putting up a front of mouthy bravado. But his unfulfilled needs are revealed in the way he responds to the nurturing stability of Pikelet's family during meals and sleepovers.

Pikelet tends to be more introspective and responsible, but he cautiously surrenders to Loonie's bid to escape the mundane predictability of small-town life. On a mutual dare, they cycle all the way to the coast, and the transfixing spectacle of surfers in an ocean ballet exerts an instantaneous grip on them both. "Never had I seen men do something so beautiful," says the adult Pikelet in a voiceover. "So pointless and elegant — as if dancing on water was the bravest thing a man could do."

Instantly hooked, they start out on cheap Styrofoam short boards, modifying them with homemade fins, before upgrading to beat-up second-hand fiberglass boards, purchased with cash from odd jobs. Their new hobby becomes a full-on obsession once they fall under the spell of Sando (Baker), an enigmatic surf veteran who kits them out in wetsuits and starts showing them secret spots to catch choice breaks, some of them accessible only by boat.

Water cinematographer Rick Rifici's gorgeous footage on and under the waves captures the sense of continuous discovery in these passages, not with the usual super-charged, extreme-sports energy but more often with a dreamy grace ideally tailored to a story rooted in memory. Those images are integrated smoothly into Marden Dean's more muted visuals on land, bathed in lots of soft, natural light.

Finding a stash of surf magazines at Sando's isolated house in the bush, Pikelet and Loonie learn he was a champion board rider who has surfed all over the word. But Sando, who comes and goes without warning, resents that intrusion into a part of his life he has rejected. The boys also witness the tension with his moody, distant wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a willowy, flaxen-haired beauty from Utah, whose knee injury curtailed her career as a champion freestyle skier.

The theme of physical risk, its adrenaline rush and its potential for danger are woven throughout the story (Pikelet is seen reading Heart of Darkness at school), planted also in the boys' growing determination to conquer Old Smokey, a legendary monster swell miles out to sea. Loonie's competitiveness causes ripples in his friendship with Pikelet. And Pikelet's growing addiction to riding the waves leaves his sweet high school girlfriend Queenie (Miranda Frangou) feeling like a low priority. But the greater reason for Pikelet's inattention is his quiet pining for Eva.

Winton's book navigates a radical shift in the second half, from the liberating pleasures of surfing into the even more turbulent waters of sexual awakening. A plot thread about erotic asphyxiation continues the theme of perilous thrill-seeking as a way to feel alive. This was always going to be the most challenging part of the story to depict onscreen without getting lurid, and it's to the credit of Baker and his co-writers that it's handled here with both candor and restraint.

One of the most remarkable qualities of Coulter's textured performance as Pikelet is the way the actor seems physically to mature and become a man before our eyes, simply through body language and eyes that are a lucid window into his inner life.

Baker's long experience as an actor has clearly helped him draw expressive work from his cast. Spence is immensely likable, making Loonie an instantly identifiable Aussie type, a cheeky "larrikin" with a subconscious self-destructive streak and a vulnerability disguised even to himself. The chameleonic Debicki is superb as always, her Eva both ethereal and anchored by bitter sadness. And in a performance that's a master class in economy, Roxburgh shows again why he's one of Australia’s best actors by conveying the gentle wistfulness of Pikelet's dad, whose concern for his son is colored by the melancholy mixed feelings of a parent about letting go.

While Pikelet is the emotionally transparent heart of the story, Sando is its more unknowable mystery, and Baker nails that role by underplaying rather than romanticizing the character's function as a worldly guru figure. His relaxed exchanges both with Pikelet and Loonie subtly indicate the qualities he admires in each boy, perhaps recognizing them from his own youth. And the generosity with which he acknowledges Pikelet's courage and integrity, choosing to leave conflicts between them unspoken, is quite affecting.

Complemented by the sleepy guitar strains of composer Harry Gregson-Williams' gentle score, this is a minor-key yet transporting memory drama that, as its title suggests, breathes.

Production companies: Gran Via Productions, Windalong Productions, See Pictures
Cast: Simon Baker, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake, Miranda Frangou, Jacek Koman
Director: Simon Baker
Screenwriter: Gerard Lee, Simon Baker, Tim Winton, based on Winton’s novel
Producers: Mark Johnson, Simon Baker, Jamie Hilton
Executive producers: Tom Williams, Dave Hansen, Johnny Mac, Laura Rister
Director of photography: Marden Dean
Water cinematographer: Rick Rifici
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume designer: Terri Lamera
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Editor: Dany Cooper
Casting: Nikki Barrett
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: CAA, Untitled Entertainment, Embankment Films

115 minutes