2018, NR, 116 min. Directed by Simon Baker. Starring Simon Baker, Ben Spence, Samson Coulter, Elizabeth Debicki, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., June 15, 2018
Making his directorial debut in this adaptation of popular Australian author Tim Winton’s eighth novel, actor Simon Baker (best-known as television’s The Mentalist) treats Winton’s spare prose in Breath like a sacred text, in keeping with the author’s revered literary status in his native country. It’s one of the few narration-dependent films in recent years in which the words don’t get in the way of the story.
Set in a western Australian coastal village during an unspecified time in the Seventies, the movie is narrated by a grownup Bruce “Pikelet” Pike (played as a teen by Coulter) looking back on his boyhood friendship with the daredevil Loonie (Spence) and the mentorship offered by the quietly charismatic Sando (Baker), a former professional surfer who teaches his two eager students how to ride the swells and experience “the hand of God.” The film’s aquatic scenes (superbly filmed by water cinematographer Rick Rifici) are both exhilarating and humbling; you get the rush of excitement the boys feel while riding the gigantic waves that Sando affectionately calls “Old Smoky.” But the narrative takes an unexpected shift after Sando and Loonie abruptly leave town to pursue the Indonesian surf, leaving an abandoned Pikelet to deal with Sando’s emotionally and physically scarred wife Eva (Debicki), a woman drowning in her own sadness. As odd as it may initially seem, The Endless Summer becomes Summer of ‘42, and Breath reveals itself to be the coming-of-age story it’s been all along.
Baker paces the film similarly to reading a book. There’s a leisurely pleasure in the way he allows things to unfold, although a couple of unanswered questions stick in the craw. (For example, is a fatal road involving a car and a cattle truck that Pikelet encounters on his way home from school the reckless handiwork of Loonie?) And while the titular “breath” leitmotif plays nicely in terms of a trembling Pikelet’s hyperventilation as he paddles offshore to catch the big breakers for the first time, the literary device gets weird when erotic asphyxiation is introduced into the storyline as another form of thrill-seeking, addictive behavior (a case of too much faithfulness to a source being a tricky thing). But even then, newcomer Coulter grounds the movie in a sincere and wide-eyed clearheadedness that gives Breath its oxygen. Even when Pikelet is confounded by a world of untrustworthy adults, you instinctively know the kid will be all right. By the end, you’ll swear you’ve seen him mature before your very eyes.