We don’t get many films set in small Australian towns in the mid-60s, and though this is the era applied to the story of Jasper Jones, what unfolds is far from exclusive to any one period. Through a cleverly winding and well-paced tale, adapted by director Rachel Perkins from Craig Silvey’s best-selling novel, Jasper Jones reveals an overlapping hotbed of hypocrisy, xenophobia and sexual abuse through the wide-eyed and inquisitive Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) and the film’s eponymous character, an indigenous outsider played with a potent mix of strength and fear by Aaron L. McGrath.
These two young actors are consistently impressive as they share a world with veterans Toni Collette (who plays Charlie’s mother) and Hugo Weaving (a croaky hermit given the undesirable nickname of Mad Jack Lionel). As such, the ensemble is strong and patches the film’s weakest parts with sensitive human touches that live and breathe in a setting carefully and beautifully pieced together in order to give the town of Corrigan a believable atmosphere.
Charlie is a bookish adolescent who spends his days debating the utility of superheroes with his best friend Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long), the film’s great big comic hope and the son of two Vietnamese immigrants who also live in town. The dynamic between these two is unfortunately absent for much of the film, but when they are together both child actors share a wonderful chemistry that heightens their differences and makes it all the more infuriating when one is singled out by others because of their race.
On the other hand, Jasper is a quiet outsider who has sadly grown to accept his position in town, so when he finds his secret lover, teenage girl Laura, hanging from a tree he immediately knows he’ll get the blame. Though his reasons are frustratingly vague and given little explanation, Jasper first seeks the help of Charlie to first hide the body, second keep the secret, and third find who the real killer is. Charlie is more than willing to go along, even going so far as to conceal his secret from Laura’s young sister Elizia (Angourie Rice).
It’s classic small town paranoia from there, and though the story may coast on cliche at times, it’s a clever segue into studying the implosive bad habits of townspeople so corrupt and indulgent that they seem foolish when juxtaposed against well-meaning and likeable Charlie. Whether it’s Charlie’s mother (Collette), an unhappy housewife sketched with great longing and a subtle shade of sadness, using New Year’s Eve as an excuse for infidelity, or the most salient town racists pointing fingers at Lu’s family, a dysfunctional community has been exposed in Charlie’s eyes simply because he started viewing human nature from a different angle. A little bit of suspicion and critical thinking can go a long way.
The catalyst for all of this is Laura’s “disappearance” (a death known only to Jasper and Charlie) and the stress that follows in a town where nothing much ever really happens. Juggling a murder mystery against these real-world statements – which is wholly applicable to just about everywhere in Australia now – is contained with precision from Perkins, who worked with Silvey to mine the source material with a sense of frugality. The rich detail and world-building found in Silvey’s novel is sadly missed at some moments but, considering it’s modest duration, what Perkins, Silvey and screenwriter Shaun Grant have managed to do, effectively reconstruct the story so it fits, is admirable and worthy of praise.
In a way, this is a transmuted To Kill A Mockingbird, but through grounded characters and a believable story Jasper Jones carves its own identity, one filled with moments of great intelligence and skill that are helped along by terrific acting from all involved. Though its scenes of subtle racism, misunderstanding and callous dismissal don’t bring anything new to the table, the angle from which these moral ills are challenged feels like a crucial perspective for a society which needs a good, swift reminder of the harmful hypocrisy that can take hold of adults in a community where the children seem to be the only ones holding it all together.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Jasper Jones screens in Australian cinemas from 2nd March 2017.