Although the mid-1970s set Australian coming of age drama Breath gives actor turned director Simon Baker an assured and captivating debut feature, it’s more noteworthy for the breakout young stars at the centre of it all. In some respects, Breath is a fairly standard drama that combines the mysterious allure of surfing, fraught mentor-student relationships, and fracturing teenage friendships, but director and co-writer Baker’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel curls its way around clichés in refreshing and subtle ways. It’s decidedly one of those “end to innocence” narratives, but it’s also a nice ending to an otherwise bombastic summer movie season.

Fourteen year old best mates Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are practically inseparable, despite their vastly different backgrounds growing up in Western Australia. Pikelet comes from a loving and supportive family. He shows more maturity around girls and is generally the cautious one in their friendship. Loonie has an abusive, heavy drinking pa, and he approaches every potentially dangerous situation with a daredevil’s sensibility. One day while on a bike ride out to the coast, they become entranced watching surfers ride the waves. After getting some cruddy wooden boards of their own, they meet and befriend Bill Sanderson, a.k.a. Sando (Baker), a former wave riding big wig now living a quiet life with his injured skier wife (Elizabeth Debicki). Sando takes the youngsters under their wing, but over the course of a year, circumstances and setbacks threaten to drive a wedge between Pikelet and Loonie.

Breath might be a film built around a love of surfing, but it definitely can’t be categorized as a traditional sports movie. While the script from Baker and Gerard Lee (Top of the Lake) certainly captures some laid back beachside vibes, the sport is more used to bring together and tear apart certain characters. Breath isn’t a film about young people trying to get into a new sport at an early age, but rather about a uniting and dividing force. While Baker shows an exceptional eye for staging surfing sequences, this is much more of a coming of age drama that uses what the boys learn on the ocean to reflect their growing abilities to take risks.

The first hour of Breath is relatively low stakes, but highly enjoyable. Baker gives the viewer ample information to help them get to know and understand Pikelet and Loonie. Not all of the pertinent character traits come through actions that are shown, but what could have been deathly dumps of exposition are handled with subtlety and grace. There are many predictable plot developments in play, and Baker seems to love foreshadowing a bit too much, but with the exception of a major wrinkle in the film’s second half (one that could have derailed things if it wasn’t so well performed), Breath never dwells on standard coming of age tropes. The boys clash with each other, but never violently. Pikelet will have troubles holding onto a not-so-serious girlfriend (Miranda Frangou). Sando will favour Pikelet’s soulfulness, but eventually finds himself drawn to the more action oriented Loonie. None of it is particularly shocking, but it’s told from the perspective of cleverly written characters that have been expertly cast.

While Breath is a passion project for Baker, it also feels like a torch passing gesture from the Aussie actor to a new generation of homegrown talents. Baker’s performance as the boys’ mentor and confidant purposefully blends into the background, offering gentle contrast to the two leads, and also to Debicki’s low-key exceptional work as Sando’s depressed wife. Baker, both on screen and off, plays the chaotic neutral to Coulter’s refined and gradually escalating performance and Spence’s devil-may-care livewire. Pikelet has a good head on his shoulder, but has rarely experienced loss or tragedy in the same ways Bill and Loonie have. But while Sando can relate more to Loonie, there’s also a subtle suggestion that the young man might be too extreme for the aging surf veteran. The story always focuses on the boys, and rarely on whatever has been eating away at Sando.

Spence’s role is more of a supporting turn, but it’s assuredly the showier and more dramatic of the two boys anchoring the story. Boasting a mop top of bright blonde hair and a swagger reminiscent of a young Sean Penn, Spence portrays Loonie as a confident, but vulnerable young man. He talks a big game and almost always follows through on his impetuous ideas, but he’s also a bit of a softie. A sit down with his mother while his father dozes in a chair in the background shows a tender, loving side of a character that would traditionally be a tough guy, and a late film conversation with Pikelet finds Loonie biting his lip to keep from crying or spilling the beans about a secret his best friend doesn’t think he knows. There’s a great deal of nuance to Loonie’s sometimes confounding ways, but Spence is always able to find it.

Even though Spence gets the role that sounds more fun to play on paper, it’s Coulter that makes an even bigger impression. Stories about young men coming out of their shells for the first time are often told more directly than the one being told in Breath. Although Pikelet is learning how to be courageous, forthright, emotionally honest, and empathetic along his journey, the moments that lead to these revelations are frequently quiet and restrained. The character doesn’t rise and fall by established, well worn, and melodramatic teen movie rhythms and tropes. Everything learned by the character becomes a part of Coulter’s performance, and most of it is told through expression, delivery, and physicality. It’s a turn that becomes incrementally more difficult as the film progresses, and Coulter matches Baker’s atypical teen movie vision with sensibilities that suggest a performer far wiser than his years.

The lead performances make up for some occasional first feature jitters from Baker, but it’s still a solid first feature. It’s as relaxed and unfussy as a drama can get without falling apart. It’s delicate and never forceful, even at its most emotionally charged moments. It lolls around a bit more than it probably should, but it’s a film that boasts characters worth spending time and chilling out alongside for a couple of hours. It feels not only like a nice twist on traditional fare where teens mourn the loss of their childhood, but also like an appropriate end to summertime romance and nostalgia. It’s a bit too delicate to leave a long lasting impression on the whole, but Breath speaks wonderfully to Baker’s talents as a filmmaker and the young men he’s turning into stars along the way.

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