Surfing films are few and far between. For every legitimate classic like 'Big Wednesday' by John Milius and John Stockwell's 'Blue Crush' (a personal favourite), there are plenty of duds, like Morgan O'Neill and Ben Nott's 'Drift', Curtis Hanson's 'Chasing Mavericks' and Sean McNamara's 'Soul Surfer'. Genre films with surfing themes, like 'Point Break' or 'The Shallows', usually achieve more success.
The new surfing film ‘Breath’ is the directorial debut of Australian actor Simon Baker, who shot to fame in Hollywood as the star of the TV show ‘The Mentalist’. Based on author Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, it's a coming-of-age story about two teenage boys, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence).
Bruce Pike and Ivan Loon are both lonely misfits in a small timber town near the West Australian coastline who befriend each other one summer swimming at the river and dare each other to more and more extreme exploits. When they ride to the coast on their bikes and see the local lads surfing, they know they have to give it a try. Before long they draw the attention of Sando (Simon Baker, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, ‘L.A. Confidential’), a mysterious older surfer and adventurer who takes them under his wing and encourages them to try more and more extreme surf. It’s the 70s and Sando and his depressed American wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2'), are living a hippie lifestyle in a house set in the bush where Eva is also trying to overcome her own demons.
This story is many things. It follows Pikelet and Loonie as they move through adolescence. It is also about the attraction of extreme sport, the addiction to the endorphin and adrenalin rush that is hard to satisfy away in retirement, and it is about the dangers of idolising those who seem adventurous and attractive to us. It is also the story of relationships: between Pikelet and Loonie, Pikelet and Sando, Loonie and Sando, Sando and Eva and Pikelet and Eva.
Richard Roxburgh (in his third Tim Winton film adaptation after ‘In the Winter Dark’ and ‘The Turning’) and Rachael Blake (‘Gods of Egypt’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’) turn in finely-tuned performances as Pikelet’s parents, who watch their boy mature into manhood before their eyes. Baker handpicked amateur actor Samson Coulter after specifically seeking someone who could handle himself on a surfboard to play Pikelet. The similarly inexperienced Ben Spence was cast as Pikelet’s scene-stealing larrikin mate, Loonie. Both Coulter and Spence are fantastic as the scruffy coastal teenagers, particularly when you consider their inexperience and the complexity of their roles.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Tim Winton is an extremely evocative and descriptive writer. Reading his novel, you can see the waves, feel the pull of the surf, be dazzled by the shards of light as the wave crashes and breaks into pieces. His descriptions are beautiful, not in a romantic sunset-on-waves type of way, but in a tough and muscular way. He doesn’t talk about frolicking in the surf, he talks about the breathlessness that comes from a hold down to the point of blackout after a fall from a wave the size of a house.
To deliver this visually, Simon Baker called upon water cinematographer Rick Rifici to shoot the surf and underwater scenes. The results are awe-inspiring (the majority of filming took place in Denmark, Western Australia, and features well-known local landmarks Elephant Rocks and Greens Pool as well as the infamous surf break, The Right). A single continuous take of Ben Spence surfing a left-hander across the face of a wave as it rushes past a stationary camera, and then back up over the lip of the wave as it breaks, paddling towards the camera again (while delivering dialogue!), had my jaw agape.
Winton’s novel is narrated by Pikelet as a divorced, middle-aged paramedic - the novel opens with him attending the scene of a suicide. A kid has hanged himself, taken his last breath, and denied himself all others. It’s a mess. But the experience prompts Bruce to recall his own youth, with the story taking the form of a long flashback in which he remembers his childhood friendship with Loonie. Wisely, Baker’s film (narrated by Winton as an adult Pikelet) takes place entirely in the 70s as a more traditional, less grim coming-of-age tale, gradually morphing into a story of has-been sport stars trying to imbue knowledge and recapture past thrills by pushing his young devotees into rash and treacherous situations.
A single continuous take of Ben Spence surfing a left-hander across the face of a wave as it rushes past a stationary camera, and then back up over the lip of the wave as it breaks, paddling towards the camera again (while delivering dialogue!), had my jaw hanging open.
And then a character puts Fleetwood Mac’s 'Rhiannon' on the record player and ‘Breath’ shifts into a third gear…
The only major bum note of the film (and the novel, in my opinion) is the handling of Eva, Sando’s surly, troubled but ethereally beautiful wife whose role in the story is to usher Pikelet into manhood. Eva was an extreme skier but now has a blown knee. Consequently, she’s bitter because her husband still gets to do what he loves and because he’s not spending any time with her. Tired of being left alone, but probably unwilling to admit it, she seeks her own gratification in a way that changes the young man’s life. But she is a wounded woman and, like the surfers, needs to feel the rush of risk.
In the novel, Winton uses Eva as literary device to illustrate how deviant sexual practices can warp a teenage boy’s sexual awakening, affecting his later life and relationships. Baker (and his co-screenwriters Gerard Lee, ‘Top of the Lake’, and Winton himself) lightens this in the film adaption and vastly tones down the book’s graphic sex. But the end result still leaves Debicki in a predictable, fairly one-dimensional succubus role. When coupled with the fact that ‘Breath’ also loses the charismatic presence of Baker and Spence at this point in the story, focusing on the interior struggles of the more introverted Pikelet and his relationship with Eva, the air is knocked out of the film (pun intended) far too long before it's conclusion.
I left my screening of ‘Breath’ among a small crowd of people. Waiting for an elevator, I heard a woman next to me, in mid-conversation with her friend, murmur: "...yeah, I’ve read his books before so I was prepared for all that Madonna/whore stuff.”
Maybe I just hadn’t read enough Tim Winton to completely enjoy the entirety of the film, which is certainly confidently directed by Baker, features impressive performances, is often beautiful to look at, and respectful of the Miles Franklin Award-winning novel upon which it is based?
In any event, watching Simon Baker’s ‘Breath’ was like paddling out into pristine surf and catching a few big, clean waves for an hour, only for the skies to suddenly cloud over and the wind to change, forcing you to reluctantly ride some foam back to the shore. Hugely enjoyable up until it becomes strangely disappointing.