From Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins comes Jasper Jones, a 1960s coming-of-age story set in a small town some 230 kilometers east of Perth. Put aside the memories of Bran Nue Dae’s campy fun though, this story of teenage discovery isn’t the kind of coming-of-age story that leaves us smiling through an hour and a half of teenagers trying to talk to the opposite sex. Jasper Jones is very much on the other side of the spectrum, a weighty story of innocence lost both for its young lead and for his hometown of Corrigan.
Based on the book by Craig Silvey (who co-wrote the script along with Snowtown writer Shaun Grant), Jasper Jones’ story kicks off when its titular character (Aaron L. McGrath) appears at our lead Charlie Bucktin’s (Levi Miller) window one Christmas morning in distress. Unsure why Jasper had come to him, as the two were never really friends, Charlie is led to a small creek where Jasper reveals the dead body of his girlfriend Laura. Terrified he will be blamed for the murder, both because of his relationship with Laura and his mixed-race heritage (a constant source of his problems), Jasper convinces Charlie to help him hide the body until the two teenage boys can figure out who is responsible.
Not the most light-hearted of starts, but while Jasper Jones does deal with some heavy material, the central murder mystery is really just a vehicle to introduce us to the various people of Corrigan and for Charlie to have his eyes opened to the deep-seeded prejudices of the town and the problems within his own family. As you have probably surmised, the stoic racism that surrounds rural life is the key theme here, rearing its head in small but undeniable moments that drive the characters, but rarely the story. This makes these issues a more banal evil, one that exists in the blood of the town and something Charlie can never hope to change, only accept.
While this lends a strong sense of futility to the story, Jasper Jones doesn’t always handle its themes as delicately as it should. One sub-plot in particular seems at first a little too on-the-nose and somewhat of a distraction, but its conclusion is handled so unenthusiastically that it cheapens the quality of the film as a whole. Thematically, its inclusion makes sense, but it’s clear the Perkins wasn’t entirely sure how to make it work within the movie. The ending also feels a little uncertain. The mystery’s conclusion and the reveals leading up to it (particularly one involving Hugo Weaving) are wonderfully delivered, but where we leave some of the characters is at the least a little underwhelming. Again, the approach does reinforce the subtext, but as a viewer it feels a little like the movie wrote itself into a corner.
These two blemishes aside, Jasper Jones excels in drawing you into the lives of Charlie’s fellow townsfolk. There are a lot of characters bumping into each other on the outskirts of Charlie’s investigation as they go about their business and carry around their own little secrets and vices. Each time Charlie pulls the curtain back on a character, whether it’s a discreet and warm discovery about his father or a giant revelation about… other characters… the script deftly paints engrossing depths and histories through the smallest of lenses. As Charlie uncovers more and more it becomes clear that despite how small a town Corrigan is, Jasper Jones provides a fully realized world.
Jasper Jones is also blessed with a strong Australian cast that makes short work of the script’s extended list of characters. Compared to the rest of the cast, Hugo Weaving isn’t blessed with a huge amount of screen time, but he works absolute magic with what he is given as the utterly broken and guilt-ridden Mad Jack. The other big names, Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie, aren’t given the opportunity for anything quite as raw as Weaving to play with, but both are able to bring much more to their roles as Charlie’s parents (Ruth and Wes respectfully) than the script really demands. Wyllie is the less showy of the two, providing a very subtle performance as a down-trodden dad, but one that is impossible not to feel for. Collette’s Ruth is a more complicated and harder-to-love character, but her internal conflict blossoms into a beautiful and heartbreaking moment that’s up there with the film’s best.
On the younger side of the cast (this is a coming-of-age movie after all), Angourie Rice undoubtedly impresses the most as Laura’s younger sister Eliza. As she did in These Final Hours and The Nice Guys, Rice can’t help but draw you in with seemingly no effort at all, giving an understated performance that showcases the confidence and nuance of a much more senior actress. McGrath’s Jasper Jones proves an increasingly interesting character as the film goes on, especially as his situation becomes more desperate and you’re forced to watch from afar as he runs a parallel narrative to Charlie. Despite the fact that the film clearly paints him as a victim of the town’s prejudice, you can’t help but be at least initially mistrustful of him, and as things worsen it becomes impossible to tell if he’ll be forced to transform to match the reputation handed to him.
As our avatar into this world, Charlie himself is not nearly as complicated as the people around him, but his disappointment and frustration with what he is confronted with allow his character to grow beyond the innocent skinny kid the film first introduces us to. Aside from some clunky dialogue he’s handed in more candid moments, the young Miller gives a solid performance as the leading man. By the nature of the story, he isn’t really able to be too affective a protagonist, but watching him evolve to deal with the storm of realities he so clearly wasn’t ready to be confronted with makes for powerful watching.
The quiet and dour tone of films set in regional Australia is becoming almost routine, and in that sense Jasper Jones fits the mold. But what separates it from so many of its ilk is a much less linear story that branches out to explore an intricate web of characters. It may share the style and tone of its peers, but Jasper Jones proves to be a much more complete and rewarding narrative than what we’ve seen in the last few years of outback movies.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10