Watching Australian film Breath, you could be forgiven for thinking the filmmakers had splurged on next-generation special effects to make the movie’s teenage stars look like seasoned surfers.
But Breath, the big-screen adaptation of Australian author Tim Winton’s 2008 coming-of-age novel, is special effects-free.
Lead actors Ben Spence and Samson Coulter really are seasoned surfers … it’s the whole acting thing they’re new to.
Working off the rationale that “it’s harder to surf than it is to act,” director Simon Baker decided to cast professional surfers as best friends Pikelet and Loonie, two West Australian schoolboys who spend endless summer days pushing the limits of their courage on massive waves.
Casting directors placed an online ad seeking, “two boys 15-16yrs to play the lead roles in a movie adaptation of Tim Winton’s BREATH. No acting experience necessary but you need to have strong surfing/body boarding skills.”
Coulter and Spence, then 16 and 15 respectively, answered.
Watch our video review of Breath below
And thank heavens they did – Sydney-based Coulter, now 18, and Margaret River-based Spence, now 17, deliver astonishing performances in the 1970s-set film, even when you discount their total lack of on-camera experience.
Despite their differing family backgrounds, Loonie and Pikelet bond over a fledgling love of surfing, which quickly attracts the attention of mysterious mentor figure Sando (played by Baker).
Sando, who we later learn is a former professional surfer, takes the boys under his wing and forces them to challenge themselves physically and mentally – with varying results.
The film takes a risqué, confronting turn when Pikelet’s lovelorn fascination with Sando’s American wife Eva leads to a particularly adult encounter.
As Loonie, Spence bursts with youthful energy and has a face that’s hard to tear your eyes from. Coulter as Pikelet delivers the kind of nuanced emotional journey more experienced actors take years to perfect.
In person, both are almost unrecognisable, having abandoned their modern haircuts and way of talking to wholeheartedly adopt 1970s appearances and mannerisms for the film. It’s an impressive transformation.
Drawing that metamorphosis from two teenagers took a fair bit of work by Baker, who admitted to The New Daily, “There’s a lot of process working with non-actors”.
Reluctant to reveal how much of their performance was natural talent and how much was good direction, Baker said simply: “They did all the stuff that’s in the film.
“They haven’t acted before and they pulled it off in a remarkable way. You’re not going to hang them out to dry.”
Regardless of how the magic happened, Spence and Coulter have certainly attracted the praise of international reviewers before the movie’s Australian release.
“One of the most remarkable qualities of Coulter’s textured performance as Pikelet is the way the actor seems physically to mature and become a man before our eyes, simply through body language and eyes that are a lucid window into his inner life,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s David Rooney declared.
“Spence is immensely likeable, making Loonie an instantly identifiable Aussie type, a cheeky ‘larrikin’ with a subconscious self-destructive streak and a vulnerability disguised even to himself.”
Screendaily’s Sarah Ward proclaimed: “Coulter is all physicality and well-deployed words reminiscent of a young Bryan Brown; Spence a lively scene-stealer but never painting Loonie as a caricature.”
It’s unclear whether Spence and Coulter will commit to acting careers – their Instagram feeds suggest they’ve returned to life as normal amid the red carpet commitments – but they’ve at least made their mums proud.
“My mum cried, which was a bit whack,” Spence told movie blog The Film Pie.
Meanwhile, Coulter admitted he was “a bit nervous” about his mother’s reaction but was pleasantly surprised.
“My mum is a very emotional person,” he said. “She cries during advertisements for old people’s homes on TV. I was a bit worried that she would be uncomfortable about some of the themes, but she took it well.”