Australia / 108 minutes / color / Bunya, Porchlight, Screen Australia, ScreenWest, LotteryWest, Screen NSW, South West Development Commission Dir: Rachel Perkins Pr: Vincent Sheehan, David Jowsey Scr: Shaun Grant, Craig Silvey Story: Jasper Jones (2009) by Craig Silvey Cine: Mark Wareham Cast: Levi Miller, Aaron McGrath, Angourie Rice, Kevin Long, Toni Collette, Dan Wyllie, Hugo Weaving, Matt Nable, Myles Pollard, Susan Prior, Ferdinand Hoang, Gabrielle Chan, Nandalie Campbell Killick.
An evocative coming-of-age story replete with elements that bring it close to noirishness, underpinned by a commentary on the unescapable presence of racism in 1960s Australia even as people of good will were trying to build bridges rather than burn them. The movie’s based on a highly acclaimed novel by Craig Silvey, who co-scripted.
Levi Miller as Charlie Bucktin.
Bookish adolescent Charlie Bucktin (Miller) is an outsider in undistinguished small town Corrigan. His best friends are likewise outsiders: Jeffrey Lu (Long), the rather pompous son of Vietnamese immigrants An (Hoang) and Kim (Chan); and Jasper Jones (McGrath), a somewhat older local boy who’s blamed—not always without good reason—for all the neighborhood’s petty crime because he’s the mixed-race son of an alcoholic (white) father, his (Aboriginal) mother having died in a car crash during Jasper’s infancy.
One night Jasper urgently persuades Charlie to sneak out of his home to help him. Jasper has found the battered body of Laura Wishart (Killick), elder daughter of a highly respected local family, hanging from a tree in a nearby wood. Convinced he’ll be blamed for her murder, Jasper enlists Charlie’s help in hiding the body.
The adults of the town assume Laura must have run away. Jasper and Charlie, on the other hand, thinks she must have been killed by the reclusive Mad Jack Lionel (Weaving), who’s the focus of all sorts of nasty rumors. Meanwhile, teenage romance is blossoming between Charlie and Eliza Wishart (Rice), younger sister of the dead girl, even as the marriage of Charlie’s parents, Wes (Wyllie) and Ruth (Collette), is heading fast toward the rocks.
Angourie Rice as Eliza Wishart.
Although the movie’s titular character is Jasper, really this is Charlie’s story. Even by the end of the tale, once we—and Jasper himself—have learned far more of who Jasper is and where he came from, he’s still an enigmatic figure. It can’t be coincidence that we rarely if ever see his face in a full light: he always seems to be inhabiting shadows even when, as in one sequence, he’s in a lighted room of Mad Jack’s shack. And yet what happens to Jasper is an important element in the molding of who Charlie will be—as important as his budding relationship with Eliza. The events that overtake Jasper—such as the way that, when he’s beaten up in police custody, no one except Charlie seems to care—and the way that those events help shape Charlie reminded me of the role of Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and the way what happened to Tom helped make that novel’s young central character, Scout, into the person she’d later become. In a way Jasper Jones could be seen as a revisionist approach to the circumstances of Lee’s novel, although the racism faced by Jasper and his friends in Corrigan is nowhere near as vicious or pervasive as that faced by Tom Robinson and Scout’s family in Maycomb, Alabama.
Aaron McGrath as Jasper Jones.
And there are ways around it. The Vietnam War is still underway at the time of the story, so Jeffrey and his parents are subject to gratuitous insults and even physical intimidation simply for being Vietnamese. Jeffrey, cricket mad, is shunned by the local cricket club until the day comes when they reluctantly draft him in as a last-minute substitute for a player who’s injured himself. Sent in as the last batter, Jeffrey brilliantly saves the side from a heavy defeat, and it’s clear that henceforth he’ll be accepted by many of the locals. Even then, though, there are those who feel free to call by the Lu home to throw threats and punches.
Kevin Long, as Jeffrey Lu, shows the whingeing Ozzies how the game is played.
That cricket match—or at least Jeffrey’s part in it—is beautifully staged and filmed, and not least among the elements that make it work so well is young Kevin Long’s ability as either an actor or a cricketer or both. He warms up for his innings with all the swaggery mannerisms of a Test star ready to take the fight to the bowlers—he had me rocking with laughter, because I can remember doing the same sort of imitative BS myself at that age—but then, unlike me, Jeffrey displays superb batting technique, playing textbook shots to all parts of the ground and finally, some decades before anyone else did, deploying the ramp shot (or a variant thereof) to win the match. It’s great Boy’s Own Paper stuff.
Hugo Weaving as Mad Jack Lionel.
Of course the three kids—Charlie, Jasper and Eliza—with help from some unexpected quarters, do eventually uncover the truth about Laura’s death, but in doing so they uncover, too, secrets that they’ve little choice but to keep to themselves. The Charlie and Eliza who emerge from the events of the movie are in a far different place, psychologically speaking, from where they were at the start. The same goes for others of the town’s inhabitants, sometimes as a consequence of the kids’ actions.
Dan Wyllie as Dad, Wes Bucktin.
Toni Colette as Mum, Ruth Bucktin.
Great kudos is due to the four young principals for their performances here and to their celebrated adult colleagues—Collette, Weaving, Wyllie—for having the good sense not to try to dominate. Angourie Rice’s career seems (rightly) to have gone from strength to strength in just the past couple of years; I’d be not at all surprised if the same happened real soon for the other three.
Some while after watching the movie I read Craig Silvey’s novel upon which the movie is based. It’s thoroughly recommended too.