JASPER JONES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars: Toni Collette, Dan Wyllie, Hugo Weaving, Levi Miller, Angourie Rice, Aaron McGrath, Kevin Long, Myles Pollard, Matt Nable.

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Based on the much loved 2009 novel written by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones is a dark coming of age tale that has often been called an Australian cross between Stand By Me and To Kill A Mockingbird.

The film is set in the hot summer of 1969 in the fictional small West Australian mining town of Corrigan. 1969 was a time of great social change in Australia – the Vietnam war was raging and was becoming increasingly unpopular and divisive, aboriginal rights were a topical issue, and the mining boom was just beginning (ironically many of these themes were also briefly touched in the recent Red Dog: True Blue).

The story centres around a bookish fourteen-year-old boy named Charlie Bucktin (played here by Levi Miller). But the town is about to lose its innocence. A teenaged girl has gone missing, and the town fears the worst. One night Charlie is woken up by Jasper Jones (newcomer Aaron McGrath), a half-breed indigenous youth and the local ne’er do well who is something of a misfit in the town due to his mixed heritage. He takes Charlie deep into the woods, where he shows him the body of the missing girl near a watering hole. But rather than call in the local authorities for fear that they will try to blame her death on him, Jasper enlists Charlie’s help in hiding the body. Jasper and Charlie then begin their own investigation into the girl’s death. Their chief suspect is the local recluse and eccentric war veteran known as “Mad Jack” (played by Hugo Weaving).

But nothing is ever quite clear cut in this twisting mystery, and soon Charlie’s orderly world becomes a much more exciting and dangerous place. Charlie’s best friend Jeffery (Kevin Long), a cricket obsessed teen of Vietnamese background, is also targeted by the local bullies. Charlie begins to fall for the dead girl’s sister Eliza (Angourie Rice, recently seen in The Nice Guys), and his secret knowledge of her sister’s fate adds a frisson of tension to the relationship. Charlie’s parents are on the verge of splitting up.

And soon a number of deep secrets, truths and lies come spilling out. Corrigan is exposed as a hot bed of racism, infidelity, sexism, abuse and the darker nature of human behaviour, and can seen as a microcosm of the ugly side of Australia in the late 60s.

The novel has been adapted to the screen by Shaun Grant, a writer better known for his work on tv series like Janet King and Killing Time, etc. This is only his second feature film script, the other being the chilling and gritty true crime story Snowtown in 2011. Grant does a good job of bringing to life the book’s complex themes of prejudice, justice, class, and small town hypocrisy, and he maintains its darker blend of mystery and wistfulness. He delivers a nicely balanced mix of mystery and touching teenage romance.

Jasper Jones has previously been adapted to the stage (I saw an MTC production in 2016), but the film lays bare the darker underlying themes and makes more sense of the material as it is able to open in up more and play out on a broader canvas. It also gets to the heart of the story, and the friendship between two boys from different backgrounds adds to the richness of the material.

Director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, etc) suffuses the material with a strong sense of foreboding. She brings a lighter touch to the dark material, which means that the film will appeal to a wider audience. She also has assembled a strong ensemble cast to flesh out the characters. Miller, who was also in Red Dog: True Blue, has a natural screen presence, and although he plays another variation on a familiar character here, his solid performance grounds the film. His nicely judged and mature performance proves that he is indeed a young actor to watch. In his debut performance McGrath is also very good as the eponymous Jasper. Weaving adds yet another eccentric character to his rich resume with his performance as the misunderstood Mad Jack. Long brings plenty of cheeky humour to the material through his humorous observations and cheeky commentary. Toni Collette is in good form as Charlie’s strong, tough but emotionally wounded and frustrated mother Ruth, who feels constrained by the small-town environment. Dan Wyllie is effective as Charlie’s milquetoast father Wes, a schoolteacher and aspiring author, who grows in strength as the film progresses.

The film was shot over a period of six weeks in the WA town of Pemberton, and the location gives us a strong sense of place. Herbert Pinter’s production design captures the small-town vibe, and the period detail reeks of authenticity. The gorgeous widescreen cinematography from Mark Wareham (Redfern Now, Felony, etc) adds a strong visual surface.

★★★

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