The fact that there are a lot of a particular type of movie doesn’t mean there’s no reason to keep making that kind of movie. If that were the case, we wouldn’t have Black Panther or Logan – god knows we have a few superhero movies to choose from at this point – and both are more than worthy additions to the collection. But each is also doing something different, and that’s key if you’re going to revisit an oft-visited path: you can’t just throw in a new gimmick and a new setting and assume your movie is relevant.
As you’ve likely guessed, this isn’t just me pontificating about how I think people should make movies. This lesson about subgenres and relevance came to mind while watching Breath, a new film with some very familiar tropes. Breath is a coming-of-age film based on a novel of the same name by Tom Winton, and honestly, I don’t know what it’s for. Put differently, I don’t know what this version of the average, middle-class boy transitioning into man story is bringing to the table except that it’s in 1970s Australia. And it involves surfing, so I guess if that’s what you’ve been searching for, get thee to a theater. But if it’s not, you’re likely to find the movie much like I did: visually appealing, but disjointed and largely unsatisfying.
The story in Breath can be broken down into three acts, each of which is essentially characterized by the relationship Pikelet (Samson Coulter), the teenaged boy at the center of the film, has with a different character. So as not to give anything away, I’ll only say that in the first third of the film, he and his friend Loonie (Ben Spence) discover surfing and fall in love with it. They love it so much, you guys. They will do so many things so that they can surf: they’ll chop wood and break down chicken coops to make money for surf boards, they’ll ride bikes while carrying surf boards, they’ll get in cars with strange men – they just really, really love surfing. The devotion to surfing created in act one creates an opening for new relationships with serious grown-up surfer Sando (Simon Baker, who also directs) and his wife Eva, who is recovering from a major personal setback.
As I said, I won’t spoil any plot points, so I’ll just say that the three thirds of this movie all seem a bit disconnected. The third act in particular, while being the most interesting, is also the one that makes the least sense in terms character motivation. It’s enough that it takes a viewer out of the story with the moderate confusion over why the hell one of these characters would makes these decisions.
That’s not the only thing that will take a viewer out of the film, though: the sound mixing in this film is awful. I will never again hear a B-list celebrity announce, “And the award for sound-mixing goes to…” and wonder what that person even does, because now I know. That person makes sure the noise of crickets chirping is not twice as loud as the sound of people talking or that the sound from kids’ bikes isn’t clearer than the dialogue in the same scene. After watching Breath, my two key takeaways were that sound engineers are the unsung heroes of the film industry, and that this film might have been somewhat better than I thought, but that since pockets of it were essentially inaudible, it suffered in execution.
While it doesn’t make up for the sound problems, it is worth noting that the film is visually stunning. Some of that is just that Australia is beautiful – perhaps you’ve heard – but in his feature film directing debut, Baker has a few other tricks as well. He’s at his best when filming on the water, making the sea seem exactly as powerful, interminable, and gorgeous as it’s meant to appear to the surfers.
While those scenes of graceful navigation of crashing waves are fun to watch, though, they’re not enough to make Breath into a satisfying film. In the end, if you’re desperately seeking a coming of age film that’s set in pre-cell phone Australia or that features wetsuits and surfboards, then this one was custom-made for you. If not, you probably already have a favorite – Stand By Me? Dead Poets Society? Juno? – that you’re due to re-watch.