This lyrical and literary rumination on masculinity is like diving deep under a wave with a long slow rising to the top amidst dim light and soundless pressure. Director Simon Baker allows Tim Winton’s story to slowly unfold and brings a bleak and beautiful landscape to the fore as an integral character.
Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence) are 14-year-old lads, aimlessly roaming back roads and bush on their BMX bikes. Pikelet is a watcher, entranced by Loonie’s unrestrained bravado but always just a step behind. Pikelet’s parents are staid, suburban and boring but his home life is warm and protective. Loonie sports black eyes and broken bones, accepted as part of his reckless nature but as much due to his father’s violence.
One day they discover the ocean and surfing, scraping up money for old surfboards and going out in all weathers. They meet the enigmatic Sando (Simon Baker), an experienced surfer who epitomises to them the kind of man they want to be, the life they want to live. He is fearless and adventurous, living a bohemian life with the enigmatic Eva (Elizabeth Debicki). She flits dourly around the edges, herself an adventurer but physically debilitated by injury and unable to find a purpose. With Sando, Pikelet and Loonie push themselves, and each other, to face their fears in and out of the ocean.
The setting could be anywhere in southern coastal Australia but with the bleached blues, greys and greens of winter and the sparseness of small town rural life. The story is set in the 70s or 80s perhaps, it is hard to tell, but it is a time before technology, where weekends are spent chopping wood or fishing or diving off rocks.
Coulter and Spence are outstanding, both absorbingly believable and distinct characters with Spence, in particular, capturing all that is lovable and toxic in Loonie’s flawed and desperate youth. Sando and Eva are the only other characters of importance in the story. Others, like Pikelet’s parents, played by Richard Roxburgh and Rachel Blake, and his erstwhile girlfriend Queenie (Miranda Frangou), hover on the edges as glimpses of a safe and secure life that Pikelet is not sure he wants.
While watching, I was conscious how peripheral the female characters were; tissue paper cut outs framing the detailed colour and texture of the young male experience and Pikelet’s story arc. But I should have had faith in Winton, who has spoken out recently about misogyny. This is quintessentially a story about defining your identity as a man by how you handle fear and how much you are willing to risk, not just through adrenaline adventure but also how you treat the people in your life.
Have you seen this film? Did it make you want to dive into the wild ocean or stay in a warm room and listen to the rain? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.