***1/2 (out of five)
Jasper Jones – co–adapted for the screen by Craig Silvey from his own bestselling 2010 novel, and directed by Rachel Perkins – combines many familiar elements of Australian cinema in a fresh and thrilling way. It’s completely engrossing, surprising and moving, and obviously made with great care and love.
Charlie – played by Levi Miller, who’s already played Peter Pan in 2014’s Pan – is a bookish, erudite young teenager living in a small town in Western Australia in 1969. One night, another young fellow, the mysterious Indigenous Jasper Jones, knocks on his window and beckons him to follow him into the woods, where he shows him – and us – something startling. From this truly gripping opening, the story expands and deepens, becoming a coming-of-age tale, a mystery, a period drama of small-town Australian life, a romance, and an examination of race. It’s got a truly dark edge, but is also laced with truthful humour.
Miller is astonishing. What an actor, and all of fourteen years old! He seems perfect for Charlie, and can convey, in a silent reaction shot, a roiling emotional depth. I was quite floored by his performance. As the girl he (sort of) has his sights on, Eliza, Angourie Rice is also excellent. She was the daughter in last year’s The Good Guys, so she and Miller both already have big-studio on-set experience. This is not the case at all for Kevin Long – playing Charlie’s best friend – who was discovered by the casting director at his martial arts school and has never acted before. His amateurism is, unfortunately, quite apparent next to these two young professionals, but it oddly works for his character, a quirky, optimistic, enthusiastic oddball. Aaron McGrath plays Jasper with both gravitas and mystery. It’s a tough role because Jasper is metaphorically laden down – he’s the title character, for example, despite not being the protagonist – but McGrath keeps it simple and lets what other characters say about him deal with the film’s heaviest thematic lifting.
Toni Collette really stands out among the adults as Charlie’s mum Ruth. Collette is a smart actor and can identify roles with hidden depths, and Ruth is a cracker – complicated, sexual, combustible, compassionate, fierce and funny. Collette brings out her every dimension, nailing every moment, every line, every look. I imagine her copy of the novel, sitting on her chair on set, dog-eared, cracked at the bind, and covered on every page with scrawled, handwritten notes. In a small but vital role, Hugo Weaving is also compelling.
The immense popularity of the novel will definitely help sell this excellent film – it’s also on most Australian school syllabi – but the marketing will otherwise be tricky. On its surface, the film appears to be a straight-forward coming-of-age period piece. It’s so much more than that, but to reveal anything else immediately begins to undermine the movie’s secrets. Go discover them for yourself – they’re worth it.