Breath has two versions of its protagonists, which is a boring trope in these coming of age movies. There’s the older Pikelet (Tim Winton, who wrote the source material for this movie) narrating the movie. And there’s the thirteen and a half year old version of him (Samson Coulter). Surprisingly there’s not a lot of things to do in the seaside town in Australia where he lives. He and his best friend Loonie (Ben Spence), biking around, discover surfing, and their lives are never the same.
This is one of the few films that are really about surfing. Most movies just show occasional scenes of the sport. And it gets credit for switching some of the sub genre’s iconography. The audience sees a lot of the teens. There’s also their de facto instructor Sando (Simon Baker, who also directs the film). But they’re mostly swimming towards the waves instead of riding it. This is indicative of the story’s main conflict. Whether or not these boys can be brave enough to ride those waves.
That said, this is one of the most depressing color palettes in Australian film history. Movies in that country have a reputation for showing the arid background. And it’s understandable for Baker to show its polar opposite, where turbulent water and sometimes rain reigns mightily. The overcast cinematography might also have been there to hide Baker’s age, which is kind of the movie’s point. This could have been a movie that has a dominance of colours like a majestic blue ocean. This is instead dour, visually unwatchable.
Sando has talent, and he’s also intelligent, showing knowledge of the waves within biking distance of their town. Baker does his best acting work while playing a man invigorated by having younger people around him. But he’s also the worst kind of teacher pushing these teens to their limits. He could at least ask whether or not they want to do what he wants them to do. The story, then, is about the amalgamation of toxic masculinity reaching boys before they can know any better.
Too bad the characters in Breath can be quite thin and behave like cartoons. Pikelet’s the bland protagonist that the story has to surround with loonier characters like, well, Loonie. There’s a scene where Loonie cuts himself intentionally, capturing the death instinct in characters who end up like cautionary tales. Sando’s fine, although he’s the closest thing to a villain in a story that doesn’t want too heavy a conflict. And then there’s Sando’s wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), their paradise’s proverbial woman, both nagging and damsel-y. Characters like this are the few elements that bring this movie down.