JASPER JONES. Starring: Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice, ToNi Collette, Hugo Weaving, and Matthew Nable. Directed by Rachel Perkins. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 105 min.
This Australian film is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Craig Silvey. The film is a coming-of-age story, set in a thriller format, about 13-year old, Charlie Bucktin, who discovers courage and personal growth in the midst of adversity. Silvey's novel has been likened in spirit to Harper Lee's classic novel, "To Kill a Mocking Bird".
It is Christmas, 1969, in the fictional mining town of Corrigan in Western Australia. One night, Charlie (Levi Miller) is visited by a mixed-race outcast, Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), who is the town's target of blame for "everything" that goes wrong. Jasper takes Charlie into the bush, where Charlie sees a dead, battered body of a girl hanging in a tree. It is Jasper's girlfriend Laura Wishart. Laura is the older sister of Eliza (Angourie Rice), who Charlie is romantically involved with back in town.
Jasper knows he will be blamed, but convinces Charlie he is not responsible, and wants to find Laura's killer. They both throw Laura's body into the river, and pledge to keep what they have done secret. Search parties for Laura cannot find her, panic grips the town, and tensions build up within it. Jasper is treated roughly by the town police, and racial conflict breaks out.
The town of Corrigan is a hotbed of sexual and racial unrest. Charlie's father (Dan Wyllie), a caring person, mostly stands quietly aloof from his son and his mother; Charlie's mother, Ruth, is having a flirtatious affair with Sarge (Matthew Nable) the Policeman, who is investigating Laura's disappearance; and Jasper and Charlie believe the murderer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), who lives by himself in the bush. As the complexity of the past slowly unfolds, revealing its hidden relevance, the film keeps some secrets still intact. Charlie goes to the Police, Ruth's separates from her husband and leaves town, and the film tells us everything that happened to Laura.
The plot of the movie is complex, and it twists and turns. The film's Director (Rachel Perkins) controls the twists, and the film is aided by a good script. The acting in the movie is impressive, particularly Toni Collette as Charlie's mother who breaks down under the suffocation which the town provides, and Hugo Weaving as the isolate whom people in the town, including both Charlie and Jasper, find convenient to blame.
Levi Miller, as Charlie, delivers a mature performance. Faced with the abuse metered out to Jasper, and a friendly Vietnamese family, he conveys the right combination of trauma mixed with adolescent intensity. Charlie is not psychologically equipped to save anybody, and we come to understand why that happens in a town like Corrigan: the town's racial and sexual fracture lines are too deep and wide to make survival likely. Rachel Perkins, the film's indigenous Director, draws the character of Jasper particularly well, and it is interesting to note that Perkin's previous film was the Indigenous-friendly, musically splendid, "Bran Nue Dae" (2009).
This film is a social-psychological dissection of racial prejudice in a small, rural community, and it keeps its multiple tensions effectively alive. A murder plot is used to reveal the dark underbelly of Australian society in the 1960s, but there are some inconsistencies. We don't know, for example, why Charlie is so willing to lie for Jasper, but plot coherence is not as important to Perkins as her exploration of the tensions that characterised Australia's outback at the time. This is a quality Australian movie that has a touch of the sinister darkness of David Lynch about it, but the Director's approach is gentler. The film has touches of humour, and uses warm photography to capture the beauty of the town's surrounds, but it dramatically makes its point perfectly clear.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released March 2, 2017