Having directed several episodes of his own long-running TV vehicle “The Mentalist,” Aussie actor Simon Baker makes a confident transition behind the camera to feature filmmaking with “Breath,” the tale of two teens’ introduction to surfing under an older man’s tutelage. Baker also plays the adult lead, and co-wrote the screenplay adapted from celebrated Oz scribe Tim Winton’s 2008 novel (his 20th). Though not without its flaws, the movie has authenticity and resonance; there have been plenty of good surfing documentaries, but very few good dramas about the sport — a short list on which “Breath” instantly earns a prominent spot.
Winton himself provides lyrical voiceover narration in this flashback account of our main protagonist’s early teens in a small town near the western Australian coast (its time period rendered somewhat vaguer than the mid-’70s of the book). Bruce, aka “Pikelet” (Samson Coulter), is a 13-year-old from a stable home who dutifully attends school. That’s not the case for 14-year-old bestie Ivan, aka “Loonie” (Ben Spence), a wild child who appears to run loose, save when he’s being beaten by his awful father. (Pikelet’s more tolerant pa is played with gentle strength by Richard Roxburgh.)
The two boys are agog at their first glimpse of surfing: “Never had I seen something so beautiful, so pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best thing a man could do,” the adult Bruce recalls. They start their first copycat attempts with cheap styrofoam “boards,” then save enough money to get amply banged-up, second-hand fiberglass ones. Their dedication gets noticed by Sando (Baker), an initially mysterious presence who one day gives them a ride in his truck and offers to let them stash their boards at his place just down the road — a huge logistical improvement since they’ve been laboriously hauling their gear to the beach every day on bicycles. They take Sando for just another hippie “surfie.” A first glimpse of his ramshackle home and willowy, not particularly friendly girlfriend Eva (Elizabeth Debicki) does little to alter that judgment.
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But as Sando takes the boys under his wing, teaching them about the sea, about surfing technique and philosophy, they begin to realize they’ve lucked onto an extraordinary teacher. (At least Pikelet does — Loonie can scarcely feel or express gratitude for anything.) That’s even before they discover that their mentor is in fact a famous former pro surfer. What’s more, expat Yank Eva was a hotdogging ski champ, until she was sidelined by the serious knee injury that explains her usually foul mood.
Though he continues to attend school, even acquiring an ersatz girlfriend (Miranda Frangou), Pikelet grows ever more obsessed by this “hobby.” But, unlike Loonie, who seems fearless almost to the point of self-destructiveness, he’s wary of the increasingly dangerous, secret coves Santo introduces them to. It’s that perceived failure of nerve that temporarily gains Looney preferred treatment, leaving Pikelet behind — but not alone, as he soon forms a “Summer of ’42”-type bond with Eva, who’s also been left behind.
These later developments are well-handled, but don’t play as organically as the first hour of “Breath,” which is straightforward and simple in the best, purest sense. Part of the problem is that newcomer Coulter isn’t quite actor enough yet to convey the more complex emotions the script demands of him. (Spence, also presumably chosen as a natural surfer — both young thesps conspicuously toe their own boards — has an easier time playing a character who’s all externalized id.) Plus, the sexual initiation feels a tad formulaic in narrative terms, even if Winton labors a bit too hard to avoid cliche, introducing a kinky aspect to Eva’s neediness that perhaps introduces more grown-up mess than this story really needs.
Nevertheless, “Breath” ultimately comes snugly into port as a multi-planed rite-of-passage tale that reaches a satisfyingly poignant and quiet conclusion. Unlike many surfing movies, this one isn’t big on spectacular wave-riding or underwater shots (though Rick Rifici’s handling of both is expert). The emphasis, instead, is on physical and psychological credibility in line with the juvenile protagonists’ inexperience. Baker does a lot as an actor to put the whole enterprise across, creating a mentor whose wisdom and faintly paternal instincts are palpable, yet who’s also peevish enough to slough off any St. Surfer Dude halo thrust upon him.
Assembly is unshowy but surefooted, with Harry Gregson-Williams contributing an attractive original score.