When it comes to surfing, films have long been in pursuit of the perfect wave. Think of John Milius’s camera in Big Wednesday, a vivifying rush served up in kinetic cuts and whip pans. Or Katherine Bigelow’s sensual slow motion in Point Break, the lips of curling waves exploding in a whitewater crush. The Hollywood lacquer often flenses something ineffable from the sport, and you end up with what Bruce Brown describes in The Endless Summer: “The waves look like they had been made by some kind of machine.”
In Simon Baker’s Breath, the waves seem content not being perfect. This isn’t a film about surfing so much as one about riding a wave that must eventually break and recede. Adapted from a Tim Winton novel, it follows two boys in their early teens, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), who tear about their small West Australian home town, flirting with fear. Racing bikes, diving in rivers—theirs is a Twain-esque life of youthful daring that one day leads them to Sando (Baker), a raffish sage who extols the joy of surfing.
With his shock of blond curls, Sando is a taciturn take on Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi in Point Break. Whereas Bodhi has the self-inflated zeal of a man who honed his charisma in front of a mirror—speaking into the same hairbrush used to tousle his hair just so—Sando is softer. He tells the boys that surfing is “about your moment in the sea,” which Loonie shoots down as “hippie shit.” In fact, through Pikelet’s retrospective narration (voiced by Winton), we’re given the least hippie-shit description of the sport yet put to film: “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.”
And what we hear is almost as arresting as what we see. Gone is the blockbuster blue and sucrose sand that usually greets the eye in a surfing movie; filmed on location in Denmark and Albany, both in Western Australia, Breath is wreathed in acacia and eucalyptus forests, knotted trunks rinsed with rain. It’s filled with white, overcast days and late afternoons of bruised hues, the sort of gloaming that hangs thick just before a storm.
For Pikelet, there’s one blowing in. An excursion to Indonesia moves Sando and Loonie out of the picture, and puts Pikelet in the path of Sando’s partner, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), an American ex-competitive skier (a bad landing off a jump wounded her knee and ended her career). Debicki brings something of Blanche DuBois to Eva: A wounded, sylphlike figure, blond tresses falling over a blouse of white diaphanous cloth, she seems to haunt the house she’s left to tend. She seduces Pikelet with tidal ease—a doomed affair he isn’t capable of understanding. Lying in bed, she guides his fingers over the hard rind of the scar on her knee, and lets the door open just a jar: “Those last few moments in the air, they were the last happy moments of my life.”
Pikelet knows a shred of her pain, in that he too has experienced a high he will never replicate. Early on, he says of his first wave: “I still judge every joyous moment and every victory and revelation against those first few seconds of riding that wave.” And by the end of Breath, we too might feel a similar pang. Though Winton’s narration delivers some blunt plot resolution, Baker and Gerard Lee’s screenplay offers no closure. But it isn’t what comes at the end of the film that stays in the mind, but rather the tangle of bodies and kelp, the music swelling with the waves: a moment in the sea.