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Breath | John McDonald

Breath

May 4, 2018
Sando, Loonie and Pikelet look out for another wave
Sando, Loonie and Pikelet look out for another wave

With literature everybody has their blind spots. Tim Winton is one of mine. For decades I’ve listened to apparently rational people raving about his books but whenever I’ve dipped into a novel I’ve found it so banal, so relentlessly uninteresting, that I dipped right back out again.

It reads like literature for underachievers, for those whose ambitions and worldview have shrunk to the size of a suburban backyard. Winton’s popularity tells us a great deal about what Australians are looking for in a work of fiction: a mirror of their own experiences, and perhaps a validation of them. His stories suggest that people are basically decent, and that our best hope of happiness is to look out for each other. It’s not exactly a controversial position.

We’d all like to think of ourselves as decent types, even if we endure the same falls from grace as Winton’s protagonists. We’d like to believe our everyday experiences have some deeper significance that might be brought out by a clever writer. This may be absolutely true if one looks at a novelist such as Kent Haruf, who wrote epic literature about one tiny community in Colorado. The difference between Haruf and Winton is that the former sticks to a spare narrative where every conversation contributes to the story without needless philosophising. In Winton there’s a lot of dialogue that could have been lifted from a TV soap opera combined with a portentous ‘spirituality’ that doesn’t take us very far from the New Testament.

Maybe Tim Winton is filling the void in his readers’ lives left by their abandonment of organised religion. He can make a sacrament out of almost anything. In Breath, the first feature directed by wellknown actor, Simon Baker, it’s surfing that gets the treatment.

For diehard surfers this will be entirely credible. Surfing is one of Australia’s surrogate religions and a huge amount of cosmic mumbo-jumbo has grown up around the sport, perhaps with the assistance of various banned substances. A film such as Morning of the Earth (1971) made the case for surfing as a form of nature mysticism. Bruce Beresford’s Puberty Blues (1981) showed a very different side of surfing culture – all sex, drugs, violence and machismo.

Breath sits somewhere between the two. It provides a rapturous account of what it feels like to catch a wave, to be at one with the ocean, to see the face of God. Look again and it’s a coming-of-age movie preoccupied with the process of learning to be a man. Ideally, both activities should be as simple and natural as drawing breath. In reality it’s a dangerous ride that makes you face your worst fears, take the hard knocks and emerge as an adult.

The hero of our story is young Bruce Pike (Samson Coulter), forever known as Pikelet. He is an only child being brought up by decent, loving parents in a small town in Western Australia, not far from the sea. His best mate, Loonie (Ben Spence), comes from a household dominated by a drunken, careless father. Spot the difference: where Pikelet is full of scruples and pangs of conscience, Loonie is reckless.

One day the boys ride their bikes to the beach and become entranced by the sight of surfers cresting the waves. This soon becomes an obsession, which leads them to their first, crude styrofoam boards. Having graduated to second-hard surfboards they encounter a blonde, middle-aged surfie named Sando (Simon Baker), who gives them a lift, lets them store their gear at his house, and introduces them to the surfing gospel. Sando becomes their mentor, or rather their guru.

The other significant figure in this tale is Sando’s wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a leggy blonde from Utah who is recovering from a serious skiing injury. She competes with surfing for Sando’s affections, and usually loses. For the boys she’s part ogre, part sexual fantasy. When Sando and Loonie head off on a surfing odyssey to Indonesia, Pikelet will form his own attachment to Eva.

As a first film, Breath is a very solid performance. The dialogue is crisp, the acting good, the cinematography never less than impressive. If the action feels a little attentuated it’s presumably because the filmmakers have sought to stick closely to the novel. I haven’t read the book but I can imagine that every possible meaning associated with the word “breath” is given a run: from Pikelet’s nervous gasping when faced wth a big wave, to his father’s snoring in the next room; from the bubbles rising from an underwater swimmer, to the panting rumpus of sex.

It’s worth pondering briefly why Australian cinema is so obsessed with ‘coming-of-age’ dramas. It’s possibly a sad reflection on how many of us look back with nostalgia to our school days. If we don’t always see them as the happiest days of our lives, they remain the last gasp of freedom before we settle into careers and marriages. We feel comfortable immersing ourselves nostalgia but when the word was invented in 1688 it referred to a disease. Perhaps for the health of the Australian psyche we should think little less about where we’ve come from and more about where we might be going.

Breath
Directed by Simon Baker
Written by Simon Baker, Tim Winton & Gerard Lee, after a novel by Tim Winton
Starring Simon Baker, Elizabeth Debicki, Samson Coulter, Ben Spence, Richard Roxburgh, Rachael Blake, Megan Smart, Jacek Koman
Australia, rated M, 115 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 5 May, 2018