Friday, 25 May 2018

Movie Review: Breath (2018)

The plot: Younger surfers Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence), always seeking the thrill of the waves, make a connection with older surfer Sando (Simon Baker) and his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), who teach them the ways of the world and how, while it may be risky, some risks are worth taking.

Coulter does pretty well here as our focal point character, getting across that definite need for activity while also showing enough reluctance in facing his fears that the story builds on. Spence works as a solid counterbalance to that, embodying all things reckless and risk-taking with enough real Aussie ocker to make it stick. If he’s able to do this much just on his first acting gig, then please, can someone in the right circles make sure he gets more of them? Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake as Pikelet’s parents do alright, if nothing all that noteworthy, but then again, they aren’t the adults at the centre of the story.

Instead, we have Simon Baker as the surfing philosopher Sando. I should mention at this point that he is also the director/co-writer/co-producer on this film as well. As much as I could draw an easy conclusion that he picked up the film just so he could get a shot at portraying the wisened mentor figure, that would end up detracting from how well he does in the role. He effectively skirts any notion that he’s giving wisdom that is beyond his reach (surf gurus and pretence tend to go together a little too well in most cases), and hearing him speak it, he gives it the air of being a conclusion that he came to after many years of chipping away at it. The dialogue has the knowledge, while his delivery sells it. Opposite him, we have Debicki as his wife and… okay, this is actually kind of difficult to talk about without getting into spoilers (which will be happening further down, so don’t worry just yet). For now, I’ll say that her character serves a good purpose here amidst the script’s musings about fear and risk, and Debicki definitely delivers it well, but there are some rather unsavoury things about said character that Debicki just isn’t able to make palatable here.

Getting away from the writing specifics for a moment, it seems that Simon Baker has done pretty well for himself as a filmmaker on this first outing (his only other experience in the director’s chair at this point being TV work). He and DOPs Marden Dean and Rick Rifici really get a lot out of the natural Western Australian landscape, whether it’s the picturesque view above the water or the serene ballet of the tides underneath. For a film that does a lot of talking about surrendering one’s self to the moment, it certainly backs that up with a lot of footage that I wouldn’t hesitate to call “meditative”, just without the usual wankery such a label would imply. It’s quite calming to watch unfold and it adds some weight to the surf philosophy that accompanies it, since the idea of Zen in the art of surfboard maintenance is a pretty easy sell with how fitting the production values are. But beyond just simply looking pretty, Baker seems to have a good idea on how to translate a work of text into a work of pictures. Hell, there’s even a moment that uses what the audience isn’t shown to make a point about living in the moment and cherishing one’s own memory of it, not just the image. It’s a neat idea and it shows that Baker might have more of a well to tap from as far as directing ability than first thought.

As for the writing around it, anyone who remembers Bodhi from Point Break will find something of the familiar about this. The script, brought together by Baker along with Gerard Lee and original author Tim Winton, uses the ocean and the surfer’s interaction with it to tap into the idea at the heart of all things deemed ‘extreme sports’: The thrill. Framed as a coming-of-age story for Pikelet (and Loonie to a lesser extent), it takes that feeling of uncertainty about the world that comes with adolescence and acknowledges that life itself is comprised of any number of risks. And it’s perfectly normal to feel daunted by that notion, the idea that anything in the world has its chances of going hideously wrong; both Sando and Eva end up serving as examples of how that treatment of risk can affect someone. When everything carries risk, the only real important thing is how one deals with that risk and the fear that comes with it. Added to the national fascination with surf culture, we are shown how the world is rife with risk but that some risks are worth taking, whether it’s gaining the euphoria of a perfect wave or engaging in erotic asphyxiation.

If that last bit felt out of place in this discussion, then we’re ready to get into more of the specifics of the writing and uncover what is ultimately this film’s biggest drawback: The massive tonal shift that takes place around the start of the third act. Up until that point, Sando’s description of the waves could get quite on the nose (“It’s not the size, it’s the girth” is one of many Freudianisms to be found here) but as metaphor, it worked out well enough. But then, it takes a step for the somewhat literal and *SPOILERS* shows Pikelet getting into a physical relationship with Eva. I should mention here that, early on in the film, Pikelet describes himself as “thirteen-and-a-half” and there isn’t a whole lot by way of showing the progression of time to indicate that he has gotten much older than that between that scene and the moment where he’s helping Eva engage in some breath control play. No such defences from me to be found here regarding age like with Call Me By Your Name; there is definite squick here, to the point of being quite bothersome. I could bring up how this kind of scenario rings hollow for me because it’s a situation where it seems like it’s only being approved of because of the genders involved (put an underage girl in this scenario, possibly with Sando, and just try to tell me that it doesn’t seem creepy), but I don’t really need to. As far as potentially toxic aspects of the machoness of Aussie surf culture, films like Drown exist to point out how wrong shit like this is.

All in all, this is an initially blissful bit of meditative cinema that gets soured by incredibly murky sexual politics. The acting is good, Simon Baker’s direction shows definite promise, the writing that surrounds it makes for some very serviceable nuggets of surfer wisdom and Harry Gregson-William’s analog soundtrack adds to the chill atmosphere but… yeah, something deep in my gut rejects this thing outright. I shouldn’t be watching a sex scene and going “wait, isn’t he supposed to be 14?”, especially when it’s framed less like grooming (which it really does in a lot of places) and more like just a ‘learning experience’. I wouldn’t call this problematic as much as I would call it something that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, one that didn’t even need to be in here to make it work right. Knowing the Australian cultural response to all things sex at least gives it room to be argued but… quite frankly, going by how things are presented here, it’s hackneyed at best and toe-curlingly uncomfortable at worst.

It ranks lower than Mary And The Witch’s Flower, which may also coast on its visual chops for a while but the worst I can call that film is ‘derivative’. In the grand scheme of things, being derivative is worse than being something I actively felt wrong for watching when all was said and done. However, even with that major niggle in mind, this still has merit to it and even the main problem I took with it is one that could be argued, given the cultural context. The Jungle Bunch, no matter what way you look at it, is a mess and a serious waste of what could have been great material. Yes, I still think a group of jungle superheroes is great material that deserves a real movie to be made about it.

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