Film Review: Breath (Australia, 2017) thrives on deflecting expectation and wallowing in its own ethereal state

After a near two-decade absence from the Australian film industry, Simon Baker makes a glorious (ahem) splash with the soulful Breath.  Taking cue from the evocative descriptions set about in Tim Winton‘s 2008 novel, Baker proves both assured and affectionate as he takes directorial duties for an equally vivid and placid coming-of-age tale that benefits from its inexperienced ensemble.

There’s a certain leisurely approach Baker has taken in telling this story (he co-wrote the script with Winton and Top of the Lake penner Gerard Lee), one that might irk mainstream viewers, but it can’t help but feel deliberate as it allows each scene to resonate with us before it proceeds accordingly; and as the film drastically changes pace in its final third, time to respire is well needed.

The film doesn’t require much in terms of backstory for us to understand the mindset and relationship between Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter), nicknamed Pikelet, and Ivan Loon (Ben Spence), dubbed Loonie for reasons that become all too apparent, two inseparable friends in their early-teens who are living polar opposite lives in 1970’s Australia.  Pikelet comes from a loving home environment (Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake play his affectionate parents), whilst Loonie, when he isn’t sharing Pikelet’s bedroom, is suffering at the hands of his abusive father; Baker seemingly making it a point to never showcase Loonie’s domestic troubles though.

There’s a push-pull dynamic between the duo – the reserved Pikelet at time surrenders to the more boisterous Loonie – and it’s on one of their many cycling ventures that they make it to the coast, becoming instantly transfixed with the spectacle of the waves and the surfers that ride them; “Never had I seen men do something so beautiful” we hear the adult Pikelet (voiced by Winton) narrate.  This instant attraction grows to an obsession, and once they fall under the spell of the seasoned Sando (Baker), an enigmatic veteran who takes them quickly under his wing, their lives drastically alter beyond expectation – both their own and ours as viewers.

Whilst Pikelet is very much the emotional core of the film – with Coulter’s performance masterful in its maturing subtlety – the haunting tragedy that Breath hints at regarding Loonie (Spence an absolute fireball without resorting to caricature) and the distant, resentful nature of Sando’s wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) is where the film feels its most brave.  No longer a drama celebrating the liberation of surfing, Breath‘s radical shift into a story regarding Pikelet’s own sexual awakening  is one that may unsettle audience members, however the restraint Baker displays in showcasing this only further highlights his candour as a filmmaker.

Complimented by a gentle, sleepy score and dreamy, natural cinematography – there’s a welcome void of typical high-energy surfing imagery – Breath is very much a film to absorb.  It’s purposely low-key, but it thrives on deflecting expectation and wallowing in its own ethereal state.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Breath is in cinemas now.