This adaptation of the Tim Winton novel of the same name, is a love letter to the hard, unpredictable, nature of the ocean. The film is the directorial debut by Simon Baker, of The Mentalist fame, and was adapted for the screen by Winton, Baker and Gerard Lee. It’s a close adaptation of the novel, which follows Pikelet (Samson Coulson) and Loonie (Ben Spence), two young Australian boys. The film starts with them falling in love with surfing at the age of thirteen. Enigmatic former pro surfer, Sando (Simon Baker) and his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), enter their lives soon after.
Set in the South West Coast of Western Australia, Breath is a lush, beautiful piece of cinema. The action and character interaction are interspersed with long beautiful shots of the beach, and Pikelet and his best friend Loonie (Ben Spence) drifting along the ocean’s current. The long shots of the surf and the creek beds and the silhouetted gum tree added an almost haunted sense of solitude and stillness. The film’s evocative use of landscape is one of its strongest features, and I couldn’t help but think of Tim Winton’s prose as I watched.
As much as Breath is a film about the ocean, it is also about boyhood, fear, and the danger of obsessive love. The boys fall in love with the feeling of dancing on water, and when Sando appears in their lives they try desperately to write themselves into his thrill-seeking life. Sando chases bigger and more dangerous waves, and the two boys – Loonie especially – follow him in his quest. Fear rules most of Pikelet’s time on his board – he loves the ocean and surfing but cannot seem to commit himself with the same reckless abandon as his mate, Loonie. Loonie, a kid who has grown up with abusive parents and the grim certainty he will never matter – sees surfing as something he can lose himself in entirely.
The emotional arc of the movie follows the timid Pikelet working up enough courage to stand up for himself. The character is prone to panic attacks and bouts of being completely frozen in frightening situations. Loonie and even Sando sometimes, sees these attacks as Pikelet being a ‘pussy’ or somehow less manly. In the end, Pikelet rejects this rigid form of masculinity – he still loves surfing and the ocean but he wants to do it on his terms.
However, Breath is also home to many moments of tenderness. The relationship between the much older Sando and the boys is built on a foundation of mutual affection. Sando is always quick to help Pikelet calm down during one of his panics and takes on Loonie’s wildness with a sense of admiration. Despite being rife with the posturing and insecurities and jealousy of teenage boys, the relationship between Pikelet and Loonie is a caring one. Pikelet often offers Loonie a safe place to stay when his father is being abusive. The scenes where they attempt to earn enough money for their first surfboards by doing a bunch of shitty jobs for not very much money, are delightful.
My biggest issue about the film comes in the form of Eva, Sando’s wife. Eva is a former professional skier from Utah, USA. She is forced to give up the sport after an accident does severe and permanent damage to her knee. For much of the film she exists as a dark, angry spectre on the edge of the boy’s close relationship with her husband. ‘I don’t want them here,’ she hisses to Sando, upon seeing the boys in her driveway. After Sando and Loonie disappear to Indonesia leaving her and the other boy behind, Eva seduces the school age Pikelet into an increasingly disturbing sexual relationship. The relationship ends after Pikelet discovers Eva is pregnant. It’s unclear whether the child is his or Sando’s. The script doesn’t offer Eva much beyond being Sando’s wife and her relationship with Pikelet. She is obviously a character in pain and frustrated by the turn her life has taken and there seems to be no escape for her. The last we see of Eva is her carefully blank face as she tells Pikelet to go home after he sees the new swell of her belly. Indeed, ‘carefully blank’ seems to be the most we get out of the only female character with any significant screen time.
I enjoyed this film for the most part and I think fans of Tim Winton will not be disappointed by this adaptation.
Words by Riana Kinlough.