Award-winning novels do not always lead to award-winning films. As we know, the novel’s unbounded imaginative space reigns free while the movie is constrained within sight and sound. The coming-of-age film Breath (2017)is beautiful to look at, but its clichéd characters and banal dialogue make it a rather ordinary translation of Tim Winton’s widely acclaimed book.
The story is framed as a middle-age nostalgic flashback to growing up in a logging village on the spectacular West Australian coastline. We follow through the eyes of a young teenager called Pikelet (Samson Coulter) who, with his aptly-named best friend Loonie (Ben Spence), are inducted into the surfing culture of the 1970s. Their dreams of conquering big waves are made real when they are befriended by a 40-something former top surfer and off-the-grid hippy called Sando (Simon Baker). He becomes their mentor, inspiring them with zen-like dogma about the mastery of one’s inner fears and the purism of doing something as pointlessly elegant as riding a dangerously large wave. Meanwhile, Sando’s surly girlfriend Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) limps around in the background with a chronic injury from top-tier competitive skiing. She is cool towards the teenagers until Sando and Loonie take off to Indonesia to chase even bigger waves, leaving young Pikelet to herself.
Sexual initiation is not always recalled through misty lens. Eva has dangerously weird taste in bed and no qualms about the boy’s lack of maturity. While the camera spends a lot of time watching them together it is never close enough to earn an 18+ rating. Pikelet finds himself between two worlds: innocent school friends on one hand, and a worldly woman who uses him as a toy on the other. It is not so different to the space between mastering a wave for fun and chasing one to prove you are not scared.
The enduring high point of Breath is its cinematography. Lush rainforests, ruggedly rocky coastlines, and white-crested rollers are captured with almost lyrical beauty. The cameras spend a lot of time on top of and under the water, and some of the wave shots can make you gasp. However,the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue often inauthentically mystical, and there is not a trace of narrative tension. Eva remains a shadowy person and her past sporting career is barely mentioned, as women’s achievements don’t count for much in a man’s world. On the other hand, the film labours at length but simplistically over what it takes to be a man. A particularly insipid example is early in the film the two teenagers get around on under-sized kid’s BMX bicycles, but the day after Pikelet’s sexual initiation he suddenly appears on a full-size bike. Really; is that all it takes?
If Breathhas serious messages about growing up with worthwhile values, they only hang in limbo, unformed and unexplored. No doubt there will be different responses from those who read the book, those who fondly remember the 1970s, and those for whom sex and surfing is still a pathway to adulthood. If it achieves anything, it highlights how much more complex growing up is today.
Director: Simon Baker
Stars: Simon Baker, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Elizabeth Debicki