by Lachlan Anderson
Rated M. Starring Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Angourie Rice. Directed by Rachel Perkins.
2009’s multi award winning Australian novel Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey was always destined for a big screen portrayal. Since its release the book has become a favourite of English teachers across the country and it has even been called Australia’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Director Rachel Perkins has guided the adaptation, which hits screens this week.
Thirteen year-old Charlie Bucktin (Miller) lives in the rural town of Corrigan, Western Australia during the sixties. One night the bookish Charlie is visited by Jasper Jones (McGrath), a half Aboriginal boy who everyone in town believes is bad news. When Jasper brings Charlie to a dead body in the bush, both boys know they have to solve the mystery. Charlie has to hide his secret for fear that Jasper will be blamed, all whilst his feelings for the girl’s sister Eliza (Rice) grow more romantic and his parents marriage also begins to come apart.
The comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird is fairly straightforward. This is a story about youth in the oppressiveness of an adult’s world. The young actors more than pull their weight among a cast that includes big stars like Hugo Weaving and Toni Collette, and Angourie Rice follows her great turn in The Nice Guys with a restrained and focused performance.
The film has many things going for it, great acting and some genuinely great laughs at times amongst the more depressing content. But what lets the film down is that it doesn’t it all hold together. It’s clear that it’s adapted from a book and so the peripheral content tends to get sidelined or cut out completely. In particular, the deeply tense racial background to the story. Negative sentiments toward Indigenous Australians and Asian migrants during the Vietnam War are present on screen at times, but are never really drawn out or inspected, as more time is needed to solve a murder and help Charlie progress into adulthood. It is a coming of age story after all.
Like Harper Lee’s seminal novel, Jasper Jones explores the ills of society, particularly in that 60s era, but the darker sides of Corrigan are much like our modern society. So in many ways it would be easy to side ourselves with Charlie, Eliza or Jasper. We of course also sit in the other camp though. Charlie stands out from the others in his town and it is because of this that he is trusted by Jasper and ultimately why he can “survive” the harsh living that Corrigan represents. Similarly the Christian, whilst not perfect, should be trying to stand out from the crowd in the way we live, so that we would be good witnesses to those around us.
The Verdict: A mostly enjoyable film that highlights some great young Australian talent and retains a youthful energy. Too many loose threads let the movie down though, so it can never really live up to the American classic it so clearly is modelled on. 3/5
Jasper Jones is in Australian cinemas now.