Review: In a Well-Worn Genre, Breaking Surface Stands Out for Originality, Intensity

Even if its overarching themes aren’t entirely unique, Breaking Surface, a chilling (and chilly) thriller about two sisters and their deep-water diving excursion gone very wrong, certainly gets points for its original take on these tried and true conventions. From a cast led by women in intensely physical roles to impressive independent production value in the underwater world of scuba diving, writer/director Joachim Hedén delivers a ticking-clock drama that, at just 82 minutes, gets right to the action and keeps the momentum high throughout.

Breaking Surface
Image courtesy of Music Box Films

The film begins with a short prologue, setting the stage for the relationship between sisters Ida (Moa Gammel) and Tuva (Madeleine Martin); the two are children diving off their family dock when older sister Ida frantically emerges from the water shouting for help to find her sister, who’s taking too long to resurface. Their mother is able to resuscitate Tuva, but the damage is done—Ida knows she’s messed up, and their mother isn’t shy about shaming her for the potentially fatal mistake. Fast forward to the present day, the women are grown and Ida visits Tuva and their mother, Anne (Trine Wiggen), with plans to go on a family dive in the days after Christmas. Hedén uses these exposition-heavy first few scenes to really shoe-horn in the shared backstory and establish their family dynamic, and if it feels a bit forced, it’s forgiven as the set-up lends itself to investing more in these characters later, the more precarious their circumstances become.

The morning the women are set out to go diving, Anne is too sick to join them (more convenient but forgivable set-up for what’s to come), so the sisters begin the drive out to the remote cove where they’ll submerge into the depths of the sea and explore the cold, dark waters together. Both are seasoned divers, and neither seems too bothered that it’s the dead of winter or that they’re entirely on their own for the excursion. Hedén allows the film’s tension to build both emotionally, as the sisters bicker and jab at each other in the way siblings do, and literally, as seemingly small distractions begin to derail their diving plans. A motorist stopped on the isolated road leading to their dive; a stray falling rock from the mountainside where they’ve set their gear. None of it seems terribly significant, until it is.

Once Hedén really sends things into chaos, Breaking Surface becomes a race against the clock, Tuva pinned underwater by a boulder and Ida on a frantic search for how to help her. The filmmaker finds obstacle after obstacle to throw at his protagonists, so many that it risks becoming nearly exhausting to watch Ida, the less accomplished diver of the two, fail so frequently. The film’s tight run-time is ultimately what saves it from an otherwise aimless will-they-won’t-they fight for survival, and it’s a credit to Hedén that he’s wise enough to keep the proceedings focused. The central performances from Martin and particularly Gammel further ensure the film stays intriguing, as the women work together to find their way out of their predicament; they’re not always polite about it and Ida’s decisions are often frustratingly inefficient, but one supposes neither of these are top of mind when one’s sister is running out of air to breathe more than 100 feet below the surface.

Survival thrillers as a sub-genre in film aren’t new, but Breaking Surface manages enough ingenuity even within this fairly predictable format to warrant a look, if only to see how these women fare after their diving day trip goes horribly awry.

Breaking Surface is now playing in virtual cinemas, including via Music Box Theatre. A portion of your rental goes to support the cinema while it’s closed.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone