Surging waves, churning foam, seductively glistening bodies — the surf movie “Breath” has them all. A sustaining pleasure of this alluring subgenre, of course, is the spectacle of mostly male, mostly naked bodies miraculously sliding over and through the water. In “Breath,” the narrator recalls that on seeing surfers when he was young he thought: “Never had I seen men do something so beautiful, so pointless and elegant, as if dancing on water was the best and brightest thing a man could do.”
So there’s that, too.
The narrator, Pikelet, is voiced as an adult by the Australian writer Tim Winton, who wrote the novel on which this quiet, quietly elegiac movie is based. Directed by the actor Simon Baker, making his feature debut, “Breath” centers on Pikelet (Samson Coulter), a gangly 13-year-old whose Modigliani beauty surfaces as he surfs, learns and matures into a weathered 16-year-old soul.
(Not rated, 1:55)
When not in school, Pikelet spends much of his time with his reckless friend, Loonie (Ben Spence), biking around their West Australian hometown, a place where nothing seems to happen even when everything does.
“Breath,” set in the 1970s, tells an appealing, familiar coming-of-age tale about a boy and his friend who, as innocence gives way to prickly adult complication, take divergent paths. When the movie opens, Pikelet and Loonie are like one, swimming underwater and smiling at each other as if into a mirror, the fragmented images of their pale, slender limbs making it difficult, at times, to see where one boy ends and the other begins. Surfing opens their world and minds. But it also distinguishes them, especially once their drifty, uneventful existence is shaken up by a famous surfer, Sando (Baker), who lives in bucolic bohemian isolation outside of town with his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), and their dog. The dog is far friendlier than the wife, at least at first.
Sando soon becomes Pikelet and Loonie’s surf guru, their guide in the water and beyond. Initially, his deeds and words are obvious, solicitous and spiked with gentle teasing. He gives the boys wet suits, lets them stash their boards at his house and drives them to secret spots where perfect waves await. Before long, amid the swells and landscape beauty shots, Sando is dropping gnomic wisdom that announces the story’s metaphysical ambitions and reminds you that lamas come on land and on sea. “You don’t need to prove anything, mate, you were there,” he tells Pikelet and Loonie after initiating them into the Way of the Wave. “It’s not about us, it’s about you, your moment with the sea.”
Pikelet and Loonie take these pronouncements very seriously, like the wide-eyed initiates they are, and so does the movie, which could have detached a little and laughed a bit more. Sando is the groovy dude in paradise, so there’s plenty to love about his scene, though plenty that gives pause, too. He is an adult who likes to hang out with kids, for one, a habit that only Eva skeptically questions as she wafts about in a cloud of pot smoke and bad vibes. Eva is the Bummer Wife, the unhappy female fly in the ointment. And while she isn’t wrong about her husband, the movie takes a long time to give her a voice, one that proves stranger, more contradictory and more difficult than the movie over all.
Baker does nice work with the actors — his open-faced young leads are sincere, appealing, believable — and there’s a lot to like about “Breath,” including its attention to natural beauty and to how surfing can become a bridge to that splendor. The surfing scenes are unexpectedly entrancing, partly because of the water’s hypnotic pull, which visually draws you in even before Pikelet scrambles on his board.
One of Baker’s smart choices, by design, season or an accident of the weather, is that the world he has captured looks very far from the sun-drenched endless summers of movie-made California. Here, the sky often looks colorless and the water strikingly, formidably gray.
Perhaps out of loyalty to his source material, Baker at times overstates the obvious; when the sun does shine on the water, it can shoot down like a holy ray, and there is a lot of panting and gasping both on and off the board. His efforts to elevate the quotidian — the exultation of the ordinary that emerges as the story’s moral — can feel heavy-handed, and there’s too much of Pikelet smiling at his doting mother and dashing past his loving father doing something humble yet meaningful. Sando represents a magnetic masculine ideal, but he is also a lesson that Pikelet needs to learn because, as the movie reminds us (as if we needed reminding), boys become men but not necessarily adults.