Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are the nicknames of a couple of fourteen-year-old-school boys living in a small, coastal town in Western Australia, some time in the 1970s. They aren’t the most popular kids, nor are they the least. They spend their days hanging out on their push-bikes, swimming in the river, getting up to the low-key stunts that bored boys tend to, when they’re unsupervised. They don’t really need watching because there isn’t any opportunity to find real trouble. Pikelet is the cautious and self protective one. Loonie is the crazier, daring kid.
One day, they watch some older boys surfing at the beach. They are hit with the desire to do what these boys are doing; something that is completely outside of their experience. They begin working to buy surfboards, start spending time at the beach, learning how to surf. Something about this activity draws them in. Pikelet is the more reflective of the pair, but neither has the language to express what is happening to them, so they just keep plugging away, learning what they can, until one day they cross paths with Sando (Simon Baker), an older local surfer.
He lives with his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) in the bush. They have no near neighbours. Loonie declares their wooden shack a “hippie” house. Sando isn’t working at a 9 to 5 job. Eva, an American, is recovering from an injury. This married couple couldn’t be more different from Loonie and Pikelet’s parents or any of the adults they know in the town. Sando becomes something of a mentor for the boys. He has skills and knowledge that he seems willing to share. He sees surfing as doing something extraordinary with one’s life. This idea has some attraction for Pikelet.
BREATH is an adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2008 novel of the same name. It’s a “coming of age” story in some measure. Pikelet is the protagonist and the audience is privy to his thoughts. He is a naive teenager with nothing that sets him apart from anyone else. We watch as he grapples with all the forces and elements that mark the passage into adulthood. Some of what he learns is valuable and some of it is alarming. Whether Sando is a positive or negative influence is a constantly shifting question.
The surf scenes are stunningly shot. The sense of the ocean and the bush permeates everything. The water, the wind and the weather are so prevalent that when the story ventures inside it feels unusual. There is something about this portrayal of nature that makes you understand how the boys have been swayed and seduced by their new passion.
Simon Baker directing his first feature film, does an impressive job. He stars as Sando and we quickly see why Loonie and Pikelet fix on this stranger and his unusual lifestyle. It’s a charismatic portrayal of someone who is purposely hard-to-read. Elizabeth Debicki continues to create memorable characters; Eva is recessed within herself and seems curdled. Richard Roxburgh is cast against type as Pikelet’s quiet, non-assuming father. Newcomers Coulter and Spence are convincing as boys with no plans, letting life happen to them.
The story is told not as a tense narrative, but as an atmospheric take on self-discovery for two youngsters. Everyone has their own version of this. One day you’re a child with certainties about the world, the next you’re challenged and suddenly understand nothing. Baker has admirably captured an essential Tim Winton tale in a way that brings home the surge of excitement and fear that comes with leaving childhood.
Duration: 115 minutes. Rating: 7.5/10