Based on the international best-seller by Tim Winton, “Breath” is a free-spirited drama based on the relationship of two teenage boys who learn about life and surfing from a reclusive older surfer living in coastal Australia in the 1970s. The coming-of-age drama marks the directorial debut by Simon Baker who also plays the boys’ mentor in the beautifully shot film. Newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence deliver impressive performances as the film’s young protagonists who share a close bond despite their contrasting personalities and upbringing.
Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are two teenage boys growing up in a remote corner of the Western Australian coast. It’s the mid-70s, decades before electronic devices, an era when kids spent most of their free time outdoors. When the film opens we watch these boys ride bikes and get into mischief like most 13-year old’s but by the time we reach the end of the story the innocence of youth has all but vanished for the two young men forced to reach adulthood at an early age.
Pikelet is the quiet one, an only child that comes from a loving home led by a nurturing father (Richard Roxburgh) who enjoys taking his son fishing. Loonie’s life is much different. He comes from an unstable home with an abusive father (Jacek Koman) which explains his careless personality. The blonde mop-haired youth is reckless, the kind of friend that talks you into doing dangerous stunts. Despite their differences, the two boys are closer than brothers as they bike through the countryside looking for the next great adventure.
Simon Baker (“The Mentalist” on CBS) plays a former surf champion named Sando who lives like a recluse with his American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) a former world-class skier whose career was cut short by a knee injury. The couple lives in a small home nestled in the Australian countryside where they’re viewed as hippies by Pikelet and Loonie who meet Sando down on the beach.
The boys become interested in surfing after catching a glimpse of the sport at the off-limit Sawyer Point. The allure of the dangerous waves becomes irresistible for the teens who save up enough money to buy some cheap Styrofoam boards. Sando notices the passion the two boys have for surfing and so he befriends the two eventually becoming their mentor. Without any children of his own, the former surf champ becomes a father figure to the young adults teaching them about life.
“Breath” is not a film about surfing. It provides the backdrop for Pikelet’s coming-of-age story as the boy is thrust into adulthood way too early. Sando and Loonie are strong characters but this is Pikelet’s story and when the film detours away from surfing to concentrate on the teenager’s journey into manhood it may surprise viewers unfamiliar with Tim Winton’s wonderful novel.
The cinematography is at times breathtaking especially the surfing and underwater scenes shot by Rick Rifici who travels the world six to nine months out of the year chasing the waves for film and television work. These are some of the best surfing scenes ever captured for a feature film, giving the viewer the feeling of being on a board riding alongside Pikelet, Loonie, and Sando. That sense of looming danger is always present giving a real tension to the thrilling scenes.
Simon Baker is best known for his television work on “The Mentalist” (2008-2015) and “The Guardian” (2001-2004) but he’s also appeared in “L.A. Confidential,” “The Devil Wears Prada,” and George A. Romero’s “Land of the Dead.” The actor finally sheds his clean-cut look to play a shaggy-haired, bearded surf pro and it’s one of his best performances. Pulling triple duty as director and screenwriter alongside Gerard Lee and author Tim Winton (who is also heard narrating the film), Baker’s passion for the project drives the film past the average coming-of-age drama.
The first-rate cast brings a level of authenticity to the story that seems part biographical for Baker. Coulter and Spence were cast in the film based on their surfing experience and then worked with an acting coach for their debut performances. The lack of acting experience gives the film a raw edge while Elizabeth Dubicki’s subtle portrayal of Eve brings depth to the character. She is fantastic in the film.
“Breath” is the sleeper film of the summer. Catch it before it heads out to sea.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing at the Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills (Austin)