Based on an acclaimed novel by Tim Winton, the poignant coming-of-age story Breath is the feature directing debut from actor Simon Baker. Set in 1970s Australia, it follows the close friendship of two teenage boys: Pikelet (Samson Coulter), an earnest only child with loving but sometimes stifling parents, and Loonie (Ben Spence), a scrappy, volatile daredevil from an abusive home. Growing up on the western coast, the boys become increasingly obsessed with surfing, saving up for stubby styrofoam boards and teaching themselves to ride the waves as best they can. Soon they make the acquaintance of a former competitive surfer named Sando (Baker) who mentors the boys and encourages them to take bigger risks on bigger waves. Sando also has an American wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), with a tragic past and a standoffish attitude toward Pikelet and Loonie. As years go by and the boys become young men, their relationship with Sando and Eva starts to mutate into something that could change their lives forever.
Baker’s most impressive accomplishment as a first-time feature director is his command of tone. Despite a dearth of concrete dramatic developments (at least for its first two thirds or so), Breath is saturated throughout with foreboding. The sound and look of the film, including Harry Gregson-Williams’ somber and strings-driven score, makes surfing feel like an exciting challenge, rewarding on almost primal level, but never exactly fun. The color palette is neutral and washed out; I can’t remember seeing another movie about surfing in which the sky is so consistently overcast. The camera often observes its characters from afar, watching them cross expanses of beach or dirt road and making them seem exposed to an unspecified danger. The script keeps dropping hints about possible sources of that danger: powerful storms, serious injuries, and even a legendarily huge great white shark come up in dialogue, but it becomes clear as the film progresses that the most intimidating thing bearing down on Pikelet and Loonie is actually adult experience.
Breath is most effective when it refrains from saying this out loud but there are moments—especially once the plot point dominos really start to fall—when Baker and his co-writer Gerard Lee can’t seem to resist underlining their themes and metaphors with clunky dialogue. When Eva solemnly tells Pikelet he “always has a look like he’s about to lose something,” it feels like a prompt for the audience to shout back, “You mean his innocence???” The respective journeys of Pikelet and Loonie come to mirror each other in a strenuously literal way. What, the script seems to be asking, are really the most dangerous waters to navigate — the open sea, or the uncharted wilds of a woman’s heart? These all-too-obvious parallels may have resonated in Winton’s novel, but on film they start to feel sweaty.
While the scenes on land are a little uneven, special recognition is owed to Rick Rifici, credited as Breath’s “water cinematographer,” for his truly stunning surfing sequences. The sky often disappears during these scenes, leaving Sando, Pikelet and Loonie completely engulfed by the ocean as it fills the frame, churning with a thrilling power that expresses its characters’ emotional state more profoundly than anything else in the film.