Mateship and coming-of-age are prevalent themes in Australian cinema, and eloquently realised in Simon Baker’s assured adaptation of Tim Winton’s 2008 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel, Breath.

It’s an impressive directorial debut for Baker, who also co-wrote the screenplay and plays the character that will have a profound impact on the story’s teenaged protagonists.

Set in a remote location on the Western Australian coast during the ’70s, Breath (like Puberty Blues, to a degree) interweaves surfing, sexual awakening, and the propensity for risk that comes with adolescence.

Best mates Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter) and Ivan Loon (Ben Spence) – AKA Pikelet and Loonie – tear around the forested coastline on their bikes, doing what reckless 14-year-old boys do. Stopping to watch a group of surfers, Pikelet has an epiphany – “Never had I seen something so beautiful, pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do,” his adult self recalls in voiceover (by Winton).

Before long the boys are catching waves on cheap styrofoam boards before upgrading to fibreglass and encountering surfer dude Sando (Baker) in his Kombi ute, who suggests they leave their boards at his place. After discovering a box of surfing magazines revealing Sando to be a former world pro, they accept his mentorship and are pushed to take risks surfing dangerous breaks and possible shark-infested waters.

The daredevil Loonie embraces the dangers, while the more introspective Pikelet faces a dilemma: surrender to the adrenaline rush with impunity, or make his own choices?

Newcomers Coulter and Spence are both terrific and natural, with the ability to surf, act, and carry the film, while Baker plays the enigmatic Sando with the laid back air and twinkle in the eye of a man given the opportunity to relive his youth. Equally good is Elizabeth Debicki as Sando’s aloof wife, Eva, whose pivotal role in the film’s second half adds a risque element (tastefully handled) that’s in sync with the film’s title.

Leisurely told in a minimalist style, Breath is every bit as lyrical as Winton’s prose and evocatively captures a sense of place that’s quintessentially Australian. It’s also a sensory experience; you can almost smell the sea and taste the salt. And while there is the inevitable allusion to the spiritual nature of surfing, here it’s analogous to the emotional waves that we ride as teenagers.

star-4In cinemas: May 3, 2018
Starring: Simon Baker, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence
Directed by: Simon Baker