Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones is a bit of a modern classic, telling a dark, moving and often quite funny story of prejudice in Corrigan, a small West Australian town in the 1960s.
The book has picked up several awards and plenty of adult and teenage fans since its release, and has been called, perhaps a little reductively, Australia’s answer to To Kill a Mockingbird. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, it features a young protagonist, 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, who comes to the realisation that justice isn’t as simple as they once believed.
And much like To Kill a Mockingbird, it now has an intelligent, lively, and deeply affecting screen adaptation.
There’s a strongly held fear and anger at the core of his community, but Charlie (Levi Miller), a young, bookish caucasian boy, has rarely had his eyes opened to it. That is until Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who seems to be blamed for everything bad in Corrigan, knocks on Charlie’s window late one night.
“[Toni] Collette, in particular, is heart-breaking as Charlie’s oft-neglected but loving mum Ruth.”
He takes Charlie to the scene of a terrible crime and begs for his help in covering it up, fearing he’ll be blamed for the crime he didn’t commit. Jasper knows he’ll have to solve the mystery himself and only fellow outsider Charlie can get him out of this mess.
The film doesn’t fully explain why Jasper asks for Charlie’s help when the pair barely know each other, nor why Charlie immediately decides to keep Jasper’s secret and dive into the midst of a dangerous web of lies.
But once you accept that premise, it’s a wonderfully engaging ride, using a murder mystery to explore the dark underbelly of Australian society in the 1960s.
Director Rachel Perkins’ film is remarkably restrained for a narrative packed so full of twists and turns, and that’s due largely to excellent and firmly realistic performances. It certainly has moments of visual flair, and manages to look at familiar Australian settings from surprising angles (both literally and figuratively), but it’s the dialogue, straight-forward storytelling, and scene work that drives this film.
The presence of Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving in pivotal supporting roles lend the film some of its best moments. Collette, in particular, is heart-breaking as Charlie’s oft-neglected but loving mum Ruth, reaching her own breaking point as the small-town summer heats up and starts to suffocate.
The younger cast members are all fantastic, but Levi Miller’s turn as Charlie is astonishing, carrying the entire film with a mixture of intense, nervous energy and curiosity.
Perkins has stayed very true to the novel, with a screenplay penned by Silvey himself and Shaun Grant, keeping Charlie at the absolute centre. When he sees the abuse doled out to Jasper, or his best friend Jeffrey Lu (a very charming and funny Kevin Long) and his Vietnamese family, it’s really only a brief glimpse of what these characters go through.
This is a story of racial prejudice told through the eyes of a young white protagonist, but putting an Indigenous filmmaker like Perkins into the directors chair brings a new and enriching perspective to the narrative: the way she juxtaposes young Jeffrey’s success in saving the Corrigan cricket team, with the way his parents are treated by the town’s racists, reminds that acceptance of difference in Australia is often conditional and only temporary.
At first, given that Miller’s Charlie is so charismatic, intelligent and likeable, it feels as though the film might go down the white saviour path, but it becomes obvious soon enough that Charlie isn’t equipped to save anybody.
The characters who have been cast aside by this town have small wins and moments of redemption, but the fault lines in Corrigan ran far too deep for Charlie to even start solving the biggest problems.
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