You don't have to be a genius to glean that actor Simon Baker has the makings of a solid director. Having skillfully called the shots on several episodes of The Mentalist, the CBS crime drama he starred in from 2008 to 2015, the Aussie actor is primed to show what he can do in his big-screen directing debut. Turns out he has the chops.
Baker also stars as Sando, a surfing mentor to two teens who've become obsessed with the sport. Samson Coulter excels as Bruce, known as Pikelet, a 13-year-old who doesn’t stir up trouble like his rebellious best friend Ivan, aka Loonie (played by the terrific Ben Spence with just the right combo of defiance and vulnerability). Loonie has a father (Jack Koman) who beats him while Pikelet's dad (Richard Roxburgh) tries to understand his kid's surf-obsessed mindset. As the boys navigate the rough shores of growing up in Western Australia in the 1970s, it's Sando who must take the role of mystical waverider guide.
Don't groan. Baker, who co-wrote the script from Tim Winton's 2008 novel, is aware of the clichés beating up against the plot. When Loonie dismisses Sando's symbolical surf musings as "hippie shit," he's not wrong. The older man has a back story, of course – as does his wife, Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), who has an affair with Pikelet that complicates matters with a splash of melodrama the film could easily have done without.
Baker makes the strongest impression not just with photography on the surf and underneath it – kudos to "water cinematographer" Rick Rifici – but through understanding how surfing allows these boys to aspire as well as dare. In narration, the adult Pikelet, voiced by author Winton himself, says: "Never had I seen men do something so beautiful. So pointless and elegant – as if dancing on water was the bravest thing a man could do."
At its best, Breath captures that poetic longing. Baker finds just the right notes of grit and grace in Sando. And his own experience as an actor guides Coulter and Spence through the script's bumpier patches. For long, glorious bursts, Baker simply rides on the feelings that come with catching a wave. No analysis. Just the exhilaration, the voice inside that says: Take the moment, let it happen. Breath is a film of moments that don’t always tie together. But when they do – oh, how they soar.