Popular TV star Simon Baker turns debut director with Breath, a coming-of-age story about two 14-year-old surfers growing up on the Southern beaches of Western Australia. Now there’s a subject and a setting guaranteed to lure the crowds in from summer vacation by the millions. Commercial success seems daunting, but the surf is unimpeachably refreshing.
Pikelet and his buddy Loonie (played, respectively, by Samson Coulter and Ben Spence, two natural, agreeable and quite accomplished Aussie newcomers) couldn’t be more dissimilar. Pikelet comes from a caring, affectionate home, while Loonie lives with a violent, alcoholic father and is often neglected and left alone to fend for himself, dining and sleeping over with Pikelet’s family. Still, the boys bond, hitching rides on moving trucks and bicycling all the way to the Southern shores under cloudless blue skies where they get their first taste of the surf and the adrenaline-pounding sport that goes with it.
Simon Baker plays their mentor Sando, an aging hippie surfer and veteran of the big waves who lets them store their gear at his beach shack while he teaches them the philosophy of surfing: “Commit with your body and soul, without a shred of doubt” while you risk your life. You get endless scenes of them stripping down and donning wet suits, hopping over rocks and riding the crest. It’s like roller-coaster addiction, with water.
Their passion begins with cheaply constructed styrofoam short boards, like cross-country skis, and graduates to fiberglass boards paid for with money earned from odd jobs while Sando coaches them, in and out of the waves, on how to improve their skills and stay alive. The boys learn a lot about their mentor’s past from the old surfer magazines he hides in his macho lair, and observe even more about his tense marriage to his sexy, seductive wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), an American from Utah, who suffered an early knee injury that ended her career as a champion skier and left her bitter and resentful. It is Eva who steals Pikelet’s virginity, leads him into a premature manhood his friend Loonie never quite understands, and teaches him there is more to adventure than surfing—a lesson that eventually breaks his heart.
But the movie is not about the adults. It’s about the boys’ reckless determination to conquer the biggest and most physically challenging wave of them all—a legendary swell called Big Smokey. Running at just five minutes under two hours, I found Breath too long to sit through without dozing, which may be a good thing since it is a film with an inestimably slow tempo, offering numerous opportunities for naps.
The cinematography is beautiful; sometimes the camera dives underwater and glides along at the same loping tempo as the human porpoises. But nothing ever happens, and the script by Baker, Gerard Lee and author Tim Winton, the novelist on whose 2008 memoir about growing up in the 1970s on the Australian coast the film is based, consists mainly of sparse offscreen narration (by the author himself). Lines like “Whatever we did that day—or any day—Loonie did harder” are taken directly from the book, which I tried to read but never finished. That’s not a criticism. I never finished anything by Marcel Proust, either.
So Breath is not without its pleasures, but it takes longer for the boys to grow up than it does to master Big Smokey. It needs a push, an edge, a reason to care about what happens next. Instead, it’s one hour and 25 minutes into the movie before his guru’s wife takes Pikelet to bed behind her husband’s back, in a scene that supposedly changes his life forever but, as staged, is about as erotic as a peanut butter sandwich.