NZIFF 18 Special – Breath: A stunningly beautiful and soulful adaptation

In the 1970s, on the coast of Western Australia, two teenage boys are bored of their rural childhood and ready to come of age. When the pair form an unlikely friendship with a mysterious older surfer and his distant wife, they become entangled in an obsession with surfing that will change them forever.

From the opening shot of Breath, you become more conscious of your own breathing, the unconscious and ever-present rhythm. The natural cycle of breathing is maintained as a theme throughout the film, but it’s this opening shot that tells it best. As two young boys dive to the depths of a murky lake, each trying to outdo the other with the longest time submerged, we see the other motif of the film emerge: risk-taking. The beauty of nature’s cycles – waves rolling in and out, trips to and from shore, glances made and returned – are all tinged in Breath with a shade of one up-manship. That’s what made Tim Winton’s novel, on which the film is based, so great. Both the book and faithful adaptation are not just about coming of age – they’re about the dangers of emerging as a completely different person from when you started.

Young teens Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are left to their own devices, growing up roaming their tiny coastal home. In a generation before day time TV or video games, the pair amuse themselves by swimming, cycling, and challenging each other to tests of their courage. However, they soon find more to do by the sea, where they fall in with a crowd of surfers. They slowly fan the flames of their interest into an all-consuming competition of masculinity, which only gets more intense when they befriend local surfer Sando. The teen pair play their roles well but fail to capture the same depth of this increasingly serious game as is done in the book. With limited screen time, this was always likely, but is still disappointing. Sando (Simon Baker) is also a bare-bones as a character, showing little depth in his actions and never really communicating as anything more than a plot device. The situation in his home he shares with reclusive and surly wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) also does little to spark the depths of feeling between characters.

But despite the unmemorable acting performances, Breath remains an incredibly interesting story. Both boys grow in their own way and grow apart as they jostle for favour with Sando, with those themes of natural cycles and risk-taking re-emerging time and time again. It made for a satisfying plot that touched on most of the book’s major points. Narrative voiceover from Tim Winton also added a compelling layer of melancholy for youth lost that was a good fit with the screenplay he co-wrote.

But Breath’s real strength lies in its beauty. Wonderfully shot, it lacks the vibrancy of other surf movies. Instead, director Simon Baker (wonder how he got the lead role) goes for muted tones of greys, beiges, and foamy whites. This blurry dimness is reminiscent of memories from long ago, which again was the perfect stylistic fit for the plot. The camera also delicately captures each wave and ripple in the sea as the boys and Sando tackle ever bigger waves, each trying to outdo the other in their race to manhood. But it’s the sea the audience is left with when the film cuts to black, leaving us pondering what their little lives mean in the enormity of nature around them.

Baker is unremarkable, and the story is a tad less compelling, but it’s the beauty of Western Australia come to life that sells Breath. I’ve already booked my surfing lessons 6.5/10.

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