There’s an alluring, almost ominous grace to the misty visuals of actor Simon Baker’s feature directorial debut “Breath”: many gorgeous waves on the Western Australian coast, ideal for surfing, but surrounded by an enveloping sense of risk, isolation and cloudiness.
Such is the thematic terrain for a coming-of-age story — adapted from Tim Winton’s novel — that finds a pair of adventurous teenage boys falling under the sway of a reclusive older surfer (Baker). What appeals to near-feral Loonie (Ben Spence) and thoughtful Pikelet (Samson Coulter) about their enigmatic new friend Sando — a one-time wave superstar living quietly with his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a ski champion felled by injury — is his Zen-like board tutelage, but also how his unruffled demeanor overall suggests a path to a chill, beauty-laden adulthood.
But as the pair graduate from Styrofoam to fiberglass, trading their increasingly less appealing home lives for Sando’s mentorship, Pikelet uncovers a parallel narrative to his guru’s existence, one that makes him rethink his bravery lessons on the open seas.
Behind the camera, aided by Marden Dean’s cinematography, Baker keenly captures the beckoning magnetism of active waters, not to mention the searching souls — young and experienced — who gravitate toward its dangers. But on land he’s equally attentive to emotional turbulence, handling well the second act’s pivot toward sexual awakening, and the costs of untended dissatisfaction. “Breath” boasts no unique truths about maturing, but its serene roar under gray skies makes it a softly roiling, ultimately affecting gem.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena