Surfing makes for elegant and beautiful spectator sport, as those of us who stick to land know only too well.
Ever since I lived on the coast south of Sydney I have thought that surfing was out of this world but that it needed patient dedication and a kind of insanity to pursue. Day in, day out, the surfers were there, floating in a heaving expanse of blue or grey as they waited for the big one.
Communicating the visceral experience of surfing is one of Breath’s triumphs, pitching us into deep water to show what the struggle to survive in another world can feel like. Early scenes are in still water, with Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) exploring a river, but soon transition to the ocean beaches in the Great Southern region of Australia.
Water cinematography by Rick Rifici brings the experience home with beautiful and enthralling vision, above and below the surface.
In the remote corner of the continent where they are growing up, there’s not much for these two teenage friends to do. They can go to the beach, ride around on their battered bikes, or they get up to no good spooking truck drivers on the highway.
On a trip to the coast they encounter a hardcore surfer, Sando (Simon Baker, who is also director), who gives them rides to and from the beach in his – yes, you guessed it – Kombi van. He and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) can help out by letting them leave their gear at his house. It saves them the trouble of cycling to the water with their heavy fibreglass boards under one arm while negotiating the road with the other.
It turns out that Sando, a laconic, unfettered 70s man, has a bit of history. His reputation in the surfing world is on the record on old magazine covers, catching waves from Mexico to Indonesia. If he wasn’t already a surfer to look up to, he certainly is now, though hardly the best role model.
Sando opens a window to a world that neither of the boys knew existed. The treacherous offshore breaks, the remote beach patrolled by a great white shark, and the wide world beckoning from across the sea. There is the strange world of adults, their losses and coping mechanisms and their various addictions.
When Sando and Loonie head overseas together on a surfing holiday, the void throws Pikelet into a relationship with Eva who limps from an injury that has put an end to her career as an extreme ski jumper. It opens a window on yet another space, dark and dangerous, and is another occasion when boundaries are crossed. It’s not just the sex.
This is not the first occasion that Simon Baker has directed. He has drawn naturalistic performances from his two untested leads, and he makes a very convincing Sando. Winton has also invested much of himself invested in this journey.
I hesitate to describe Breath as a coming-of-age film, but there is no getting away from its place in this popular local genre. However, it is in very good company, and among the best. Appearances and labels can be deceptive, anyway.
A film about surfing and surfer culture may not appear to speak to people who grew up in the inner city, or who have only lived on the land, or who think of the 1970s as a kind of dark ages.
There is nothing routine about this visually superb treatment of the subject that explores the liminal moment when young people choose their direction. And, it is of course based on the novel of Tim Winton, who also worked with Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake, Sweetie) on the screenplay.
Breath may not touch everyone, but it would be a pity if that were so. It is about so much more than blokes on boards.
Rated M, 115 minutes
Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle