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Movie review: Breath

Movie review: Breath

Movie review: Breath

16 May 2018

Breath is the directorial debut for Australian actor Simon Baker (left), who also fills the wetsuit for the alluring Sando.

By Mark Hadley

Breath is the story of every child’s life. A baby’s first gulp of air, and every one that follows, contribute to a journey of physical and spiritual maturity that will one day produce the adult.

But it’s not just air that makes the man. It’s those other things we take in along the way, the friendships we inhale and the atmosphere we absorb, that can make the difference between a wise person and a fool. And learning to take a breath, when the world says act, is one of the most important lessons of all.

Breath is based on the Miles Franklin Award-winning novel by Australian icon Tim Winton. It centres on the relationship between two boys growing up in a remote corner of the West Australian coast. “Pikelet” is a thoughtful soul who finds a friendly alter-ego in his town’s tearaway character, Loonie.

Pikelet’s quiet home and reserved parents are a world away from Loonie’s turbulent life at the town pub. Yet together the two teens probe the edges of their quiet world, daring each other to take on greater risks, in their charge towards manhood. They soon discover surfing, and with it the enigmatic Sando. This older, tousle-haired surfer is everything the boys hope to be.

Sando commands the quiet respect of the surfing community. He has surfed the world’s biggest waves, won international acclaim, and now lives off the grid with his American wife, Eva. His unforced authority and hunger for life’s extremes earn him guru status in Pikelet’s and Loonie’s minds. But is Sando really the wave that will lift them toward manhood, or the rip they must swim against?

Breath is a phenomenal book, and now a challenging film for young Australians and the parents who watch over them. It is the directorial debut for Australian actor Simon Baker, who also fills the wetsuit for the alluring Sando. Baker combined with American producer Mark Johnson to produce Breath, because he believed Winton’s novel focused the forces that wrestle in a growing boy’s heart. “Tim’s book viscerally captures the restless curiosity and yearning for identity that often defines our coming of age,” he says.

The risk-taking nature of surfing was so important to Breath’s story, that Baker initiated a national search for surfers he could teach to act rather than actors who could surf. Newcomers Samson Coulter (Pikelet) and Ben Spence (Loonie) bring a fresh, unfeigned energy to this coming-of-age tale. But for Baker, it wasn’t just the friendships his heroes made, but the separations they chose as well. “Kids generally have this incredible unconditional love towards their parents,” Baker says, “But there is that moment when your kid looks at you less adoringly and more to try and understand the person you are.”

Pikelet’s parents, played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachel Blake, are conservative and comfortable, even a little suffocating. Sando is exhilarating by comparison. In Winton’s book, he tells Pikelet and Loonie the heart of big-wave riding is realising you’re living an authentic life: “When you make it, when you’re still alive and standing at the end, you get this tingly electric rush. You feel alive, completely awake and in your body. Man, it’s like you’ve felt the hand of God.”

It left me wondering how an average 9-to-5 parent could hope to compete with that sort of influence?

I am the father of three sons. I’ve discovered that when a boy is born, the most significant person in his life is his mother, and that relationship will form and reform for the rest of their lives. But there comes a time when a boy’s attention moves off mum, and nothing is more important than to be, “like dad”. I think all fathers would be happy if that stage lasted forever. However, as he matures, a boy begins to define himself more by contrasts than similarities. An inevitable distance grows between him and his father, based on what he determines to do differently. At that point, parents have two chief hopes.

Firstly, parents can pray the life-guides their boys choose for themselves are wise ones. Sando is an unwittingly dangerous choice for Pikelet because, in reality, he’s a man who hasn’t come to terms with his own adulthood. His marriage to Eva is made brittle by his inability to sacrifice his yearnings for her needs. As the film rolls towards its high-risk conclusion, Pikelet becomes increasingly aware that Sando needs his young acolytes to justify his own choices. Breath manoeuvres Pikelet into a position where he has to choose what sort of man he is going to become – and this is where a parent’s second hope comes into play.

Parenting isn’t a casual affair. Responsible mums and dads carefully use those years leading up to that inevitable separation of personalities. They strive to instil in their sons and daughters the values that will help them make wise choices when they’re not around. Every play-date is an opportunity to affirm compassion, every pack-up time a chance to teach responsibility. The Bible’s book of Proverbs puts it this way: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 ESV ).

There are many valuable things I could teach my sons, and some of them actually emerge from Sando’s mouth. But the same book of the Bible teaches me that, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom ...”. That’s not because God is scarier than any of the waves Pikelet and Loonie face, but because he is the creator of the swells and the boys who seek to master them. He perfectly comprehends both, and knows my sons’ needs and longings better than they know themselves. If they can learn to trust him early, then I can rest assured no “Sando” is going to lead them astray.

Mark Hadley is the culture writer for Others and is one of Australia's leading Christian communicators.

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