With its heady mix of rebellion and danger, the lure of big wave surfing has been calling to Australian youth since the 1970s. Tim Winton’s award-winning novel, Breath, captures what it’s like to grow up as part of this surfing culture, and it seems fitting that our own Simon Baker has made his directorial debut by adapting the novel for the big screen.

As well as co-producing and directing the film, Baker stars as enigmatic older surfer, Sando. It’s a natural fit for Baker, who grew up in the coastal town of Ballina and says when he read the book, it really resonated with his own experiences.

While Baker hasn’t directed a major film before, he’s a home-grown success — starting out on Home and Away, and later moving to Hollywood where he landed roles in LA Confidential and The Devil Wears Prada. He’s best known for his role as a crime fighter in the TV series The Mentalist, which aired over 150 episodes by the time it ended in 2015.

Australian coming-of-age story
Set in the 1970s, Breath follows the story of two teenage boys growing up in a small town on the Western Australian coast. In an unusual move, Baker chose surfers — rather than actors — to play the roles of the two boys, Pikelet and Loonie. So, we see newcomers Samson Coulter and Ben Spence in these roles and they take to the big screen like ducks to water, delivering jaw-dropping performances while showing us they certainly do know how to ride a wave.

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Breath is a fantastic examination of, among other things, Australian surfing culture

As the story unravels, they form an unlikely friendship with Sando (Baker), a mysterious older surfer and adventurer, who pushes them to take risks that will have a lasting and profound impact on their lives. Along with Sando, they spend time with his girlfriend, Eva, played by Elizabeth Debicki. Through Eva, Pikelet learns about the world of adult sex, finding it thrilling and exciting but at the same time, upsetting and unnerving.

An immersive experience
Baker has said he was worried about trying to capture the intensity of big wave surfing in a way that would make watching the film truly an “immersive experience”. Shot in the West Australian coastal town of Denmark, the film is full of long dramatic shots of the ocean — Baker achieves his goal and the audience really do get a more “visceral” feel for what it’s like to ride the big waves.

At a preview screening, Baker said it meant a lot to him that people were seeing the film at the cinema, “… because we made it for the cinema. If you enjoy it, if you end up telling your friends, please encourage them to see it in the cinema because that’s where it really is immersive”.

The film captures the magic of surfing and there are some sublime lines — which may come directly from the book — especially as Tim Winton worked on the film as one of the screenplay writers. At one point, Sando describes surfing as a time where “You’re completely in the moment — it’s like you felt the hand of God. The rest of it is just sport and recreation”.

The darker side of becoming an adult
There are some darker themes to the film and through the eyes of Pikelet, we experience the fears and insecurities he feels as he tries to find himself, while confronted with all the challenges of big wave surfing and adult relationships.

In a slightly more optimistic take than the book, he ends up working out what he wants to do himself, rather than what he feels he has to do to fit into the surfing culture. In a way, he rejects the pressure to be the Australian macho stereotype and we applaud him for that.

This coming-of-age, rite of passage tale unravels at a leisurely pace and with a poignancy which will resonate with audiences who understand the issues these two young boys are facing. As Tim Winton said at one of the film previews, “Simon has made a beautiful film”.

Breath is now showing in cinemas throughout Australia.

What are your impressions or experiences of the Australian surfing culture?

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