Published on May 22nd, 2018 | by Damien Straker
Breath – Film Review
Reviewed by Damien Straker on the 22nd of May 2018
Roadshow presents a film by Simon Baker
Produced by Mark Johnson, Simon Baker and Jamie Hilton
Screenplay by Gerard Lee, Simon Baker and Tim Winton based on ‘Breath’ by Tim Winton
Starring Simon Baker, Elizabeth Debicki, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake and Miranda Frangou
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
Cinematography Marden Dean and Rick Rifici
Edited by Dany Cooper
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Date: the 3rd of May 2018
A stronger script would have complemented the high volume of surfing scenes in Simon Baker’s new Australian beach movie Breath. Baker adapts Tim Winton’s novel and has co-written the script with the author and screenwriter Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake).
The trio’s screenplay feels secondary or underpowered as though the filmmakers were more interested in the beach scenes than the core relationships. It would be comparable to watching I, Tonya (2017) for the skating scenes alone. It’s a visually assertive and cinematic choice but hardly stimulating.
This is a pity because the film showcases two impressive young performances from Samson Coulter and Ben Spence. Samson Coulter is an experienced surfer from the Northern Beaches. In 2016, he won at the Ocean and Earth NSW Junior State Surfing Titles.
Coulter and Spence play Pikelet and Loonie, respectively. They are two teenage school kids who discover surfing while living in Western Australia in the 1970s. Pikelet’s parents (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake) enjoy the quiet life. While Loonie’s dad is a rarely-seen, abusive figure.
Consequently, Loonie is the more outgoing and reckless of the two boys. He opts for careless risk-taking, such as holding onto the back of a moving truck while riding his bike. True to Pikelet’s reservedness, he quietly enters a relationship at school with a girl named Queenie (Miranda Frangou).
While out surfing one day, Loonie and Pikelet meet Sando (The Mentalist’s Simon Baker). He allows the boys to leave their boards at his beach-side home. He lives with his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). She is an unhappy American from Utah who damaged her knee as a professional skier.
Eva is tepid about the boys visiting, but Sando encourages them to continue surfing and approach increasingly dangerous waves with him as a test of their character and masculinity.
The one type of conflict that Breath is good at establishing is physical danger. There’s tension in watching Loonie catch the back of a truck or watching the boys jump into the water near the rocks and approach a towering wave. The ocean scenes are filmed with clarity and wide spatiality, but some sunlight wouldn’t have gone astray in this unusually damp surfing movie.
In delivering a film plot, Breath is adrift at sea. The first hour could have been called ‘The Tim Winton Story or How I Learned to be Gnarly and Stop Worrying’. It indulgently recreates his childhood with such day-to-day realism that it forgets to be a film. Without an overarching goal or a destination for the story and its hero Pikelet, it inherits a loose and episodic narrative structure.
As such, Breath becomes a movie with a lot of surfing and only faint traces and suggestions of where the relationships should be unfolding. For example, Pikelet is reading Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, which implies Sando is a Kurtz-like idol to these boys who has predictably fallen from grace.
Yet the backstory about his failed surfing career, referenced through a series of old magazine covers, is left unexplored. This is typical of the way the film leans towards an idea but soon drifts away from it. The story is overly tepid about finding a hook or allowing personal conflict to boil.
Breath is also disinterested in its female characters and its seasoned actors. The subplot involving Pikelet and Queenie is awkwardly cut into a series of quick snippets. When she declares that they’re no longer dating, the plot point barely registers because it hasn’t been dramatised. They aren’t seen together outside of school, bar a school dance, and she isn’t introduced to Loonie, which is odd.
Both sets of parents are underdeveloped. Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake only share a handful of lines between them. When Loonie travels overseas there isn’t a scene where his crazy father looks for him or asks Pikelet about him. The juicy business Loonie is involved in is kept off camera.
The darkest thematic avenue in Breath involves underage sex when Eva sleeps with Pikelet. Their relationship is confusing. There’s no romantic or psychological basis established between them other than being burnt by Sando. For much of the film, Eva doesn’t want the boys at their house.
The inclusion of erotic asphyxiation is a rare narrative risk that doesn’t pay off. It raises the personal stakes, but its confronting nature could potentially deter the film from being shown to younger viewers. Its also too brief to impact upon Pikelet’s character development and his ability to say no. The decision to end the affair is given to Eva not Pikelet.
Despite the story’s flaws, the young performances stand up. Ben Spence as Loonie has the presence and confidence to recall the type of cocksure rapscallion we have all grown up with once in our lives. His penchant for being wild would have made him a better protagonist, a reckless anti-hero who must learn that self-control doesn’t make you a boring person.
Samson Coulter’s performance outshines his own part. His best scenes are the ones where he is on his surfboard and forced to decide whether he is going to pursue a dangerous wave or retreat. Coulter excels at showing the internal cogs of his decision-making unwinding, which compensates for Pikelet not having a personality and being a passive hero.
Simon Baker is okay as Sando though a lot of his lines are surfing clichés about how the soul will be freed if a person surrenders themselves! When his aggression surfaces, it feels as though some much-needed tension has finally been added to the body of a narrative that takes too long to heat up.
Elizabeth Debicki is not given the opportunity to explore the interior of Eva and discover a purpose for this character besides being sulky and briefly a temptation for Pikelet. What is the point of Eva’s storyline when there is no dramatic payoff by the conclusion of the thread? Nothing is lost or gained.
The movie needed to be balanced by having one or two less surfing scenes in favour of discovering its elusive story hook. Also, a clearer understanding of the main character’s goal and some improvement to the side characters would have made the film equal to its well-executed beach scenes.
Summary: The movie needed to be balanced by having one or two less surfing scenes in favour of discovering its elusive story hook.