Directed by Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now) and based on the 2009 novel by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones is a movie about fleeting innocence, first love … and institutionalised racism in small Australian country towns.
The movie opens on two main characters, schoolboys Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) and Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long) engaged in what is becoming an increasingly prominent debate in popular culture: is Superman the best comic book hero, or is it Batman. While Jeffrey defends Superman based on his inherent supernatural powers, Charlie maintains that it is Batman’s courage in the face of his own fallibility which makes him the superior character. It is this theme, of courage in the face of adversity, shared in a light-hearted and juvenile tone, which permeates the movie and inspires the events that follow.
When Jasper Jones knocks on Charlie Bucktin’s window that night, shows him the dead body of his girlfriend Laura Wishart and begs for his help to clear his name, Charlie has a choice to make: who does he trust, and can he summon the courage to find the truth about the death of his first love’s sister.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.” – Mark Twain
Throughout the movie, Charlie encounters several examples of racism in Corrigan – some of which is explained by Australia’s concurrent involvement in the Vietnam War as the movie is set in 1969. Tension between his best friend’s family, the Vietnamese-born Lu’s, and members of the community are conveyed through hesitation to accept a gifted Jeffrey to their cricket team as well as several violent xenophobic outbursts during the film. However these issues act as accessory to the main plot to the movie: the titular character, the half-caste Jasper Jones’ struggle with prejudice when Laura Wishart goes missing and he is the leading suspect simply because “he always is”. It is Aaron McGrath‘s genuinely emotional portrayal of the tormented Jasper Jones, in addition to the commentary on institutionalised racism that makes this a particularly strong message film, but despite this, the A-story of sleuthing teens solving a mystery still stands strong.
When Charlie first encounters Jasper Jones, our main character is simply an introverted adolescent, dealing simultaneously with feelings of exclusion and suffocation, the trademark symptoms of being a big fish in a small-town pond. After his interaction with Jasper however, Charlie not only gains a confidante, but also a task and his purpose is brought into proper focus. Levi Miller‘s performance as the awkward yet determined Charlie was the stand-out for me in this film. The ability to combine juvenile confusion with emotion and confidence was a large feat for such a young actor.
Hugo Weaving is almost physically unrecognisable as Charlie and Jasper’s main suspect, the reclusive Mad Jack Lionel, but provides an emotionally charged performance that I’d really like to spoil by comparing it, right down to dialogue, to another fictional character, but I won’t. The cast also includes the consistently flexible Toni Collette as the stifled and frustrated mother, and Dan Wyllie who gave yet another performing confirming my belief that he is currently topping my favourite Australian actors list – Puberty Blues, anyone – played the socially cognizant and calm father. Kevin Long provided the much needed comic relief and goofy fun throughout an increasingly dark movie, and Angourie Rice brings stunning maturity mixed with girlish charm, and is a choice which actually has me interested in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is a phrase I never thought I’d type.
For me, this period film is an aesthetically nostalgic call-back to country life. The imagery and colouration switches with tone, where bright blues and yellows reflect happy, jovial scenes between friends, while all the mystery, tension and most overt injustices happen under cover of darkness.
If I had one complaint about Jasper Jones as a film, it would be several poorly executed plot devices throughout the film, coupled with a particularly abrupt ending. Presumably this is to suggest the impossibility of a completely satisfying outcome for certain characters, but combined these inconclusive scenes resulted in a confusing conclusion to the film.
Technically brilliant and emotionally charged, the talented cast and dedicated production team of Rachel Perkins, Craig Silvey and Mark Wereham with sound/editing by Antony Partos and Veronika Jenet have brought this best-selling novel to the screen in spectacular fashion. An Australian masterpiece, this film is both haunting and sweet, a coming of age story with both courage and charm.
Jasper Jones is out in cinemas today, March 2, 2017.