By Jack Dignan
We all fear something. It’s natural. As we grow, our awareness of the world does too, and the fear of our future is thrust into the forefront, inescapable and inevitable. We all fear something. It’s a part of growing up. And that’s what Simon Baker’s Breath, adapted from the Australian book by Tim Winton, is all about. After premiering at International Film Festivals in the latter half of 2017, this Aussie film finally arrives down under, and it’s one you’re not going to want to miss.
Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are young adolescents roaming the streets in 1970s coastal Australia. Their curiosity and exploration of life leads them to discover surfing, a hobby they soon take up on a near-daily basis. It’s here they meet Sando (Simon Baker), an ex-pro now living a quiet, secluded life with his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). Sando, Pikelet and Loonie form an unexpected friendship with their new mentor of sorts, who takes them under his wing and pushes them to not only become stronger surfers, but stronger people too, and it’s this friendship that will alter their lives forever.
It’s an Australian drama with some serious themes on its mind. The way Winton’s narrative, adapted for the big screen by Gerard Lee as well as Baker himself, deals with these young boys’ lives is unparalleled ways, circling down on the fear we all have of the future and the necessary risks we aren’t sure we want to take. It’s a fresh and interesting perspective that’s very Australian in all the right ways, but also a story that foreign audiences are bound to latch onto as well. This is, first and foremost, a coming of age tale. And it works.
Baker’s direction is beautiful. The darkened, stormy weather matched with stunning scenic locations makes for an inherent beauty that’s impossible not to capture on screen. Rick Rifici’s underwater cinematography feels very first-take a lot of the time, but it’s Marden Dean’s above the surface shots that really come into the forefront, most notably a poster-worthy shot of young Pikelet on his back in the midst of the ocean. It’s stunning. But the beauty of the images doesn’t detract from the impact of the performances, and everyone here is truly sensational.
Coulter is breathtaking in his breakthrough role, giving an emotionally rich performance that takes a heavy turn in the third act, and he rolls with it all the way through. Baker is the film’s standout as these young boys’ mentor, whose relationship with his wife is complicated, but brilliantly executed. Unfortunately, the character of Eva does feel a little underdeveloped, and a certain narrative choice is made in the third act that’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way. Personally, I thought it worked. It arrived at the perfect moment to save this film from starting to feel tedious, but even then, certain situations are definitely taken too far. They add to the themes, but the execution could use some more subtlety.
Australian cinema is on its dying days. It’s not that we don’t have stories to tell, it’s that we don’t have an audience to tell it to. Yes, sure, we produce plenty of garbage, but Breath isn’t one of those films. This is something special. Something unique. It’s an Australian coming of age story that’s going to deeply resonate with audiences everywhere, and while it’s certainly far from perfection; it’s a moving, emotional journey worth supporting.
3 1/2 Stars
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