There is a decent yarn to be told in Jasper Jones, but with the story the filmmakers had to work with it didn’t quite shake out that way. Based on the Australian best-selling novel by Craig Silvey, this is the tale of Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), a bookish boy of 14 living in a small fictional town in Western Australia called Corrigan.
The year is 1969. One night, local mixed-race outcast Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath) startles Charlie when he appears at his window and implores Charlie to follow him. Jasper leads him deep into the forest and shows Charlie something that will change his life forever, setting them both on a dangerous journey to solve a mystery that will consume the entire community. As this is going down, Charlie’s head is turned by an attractive young local, Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice – The Nice Guys), who knows more than she lets on. Others of note in the cast include Hugo Weaving as the fearful and feared Mad Jack Lionel (I liked his performance), Toni Collette as Charlie’s mum and Dan Wyllie as his dad. Consider that this is an isolated town, where secrecy, gossip and tragedy overwhelm the landscape.
Films that capture the human condition in profound transition are some of director Rachel Perkins’ (Bran Nue Dae) favourites. Her approach to adapting the book was inspired by movies such as Stand By Me. The screenwriter is Shaun Grant, who was responsible for the brutal film Snowtown.
Jasper Jones embodies the collision between the romantic myths we conceive as children and the ugly truths we discover as adults. It’s the moment when that childhood bubble bursts and we are suddenly confronted by fundamental truths. What we choose to do in that moment can define who we become as adults.
It is a story about bystanders. Its ambition is not to assert that racism is bad and bigots are villains, but to investigate why and how such toxic principles persist within a culture. It observes how these principles bleed through generations and questions why we are so resistant to change. It is also a yarn about the courage required to stand against the tide … to believe in what is moral, true and fair and to divorce oneself from socially inherited myths and traditions. This is what Charlie Bucktin learns and what Jasper Jones already knows. On Charlie’s journey, we witness an awakening in him that the township is yet to discover.
Jasper Jones was shot over a six-week period in Western Australia, specifically in the southwest town of Pemberton – a small place in the heart of a forest, with a population of just over 1,000. Pemberton represents Corrigan. Pemberton was built at the peak of the timber industry. The area is lush and green and although different to the hot desert town described in Silvey’s novel, it offered an authentic period setting. Since its construction, it has remained almost untouched. Its original, distinct and unique timber houses, built between the 1920s and the 1950s still stand today. The gorgeous locales and cinematography by Mark Wareham (Felony) are, indeed, real features of this production.
I wanted to like what was unfolding, but overacting – yes, at times is appeared to be acted rather than having that ring of truth about it – and, on occasions, a languid pace prevented me from doing so. To me it was far too melodramatic rather than dramatic. Expressions of shock, severe indignation and outrage just didn’t cut the mustard. They often looked and felt false. Played another way, my opinion may well have differed. Unfortunately though, that wasn’t the case.
As I suggested at the outset, there is a severity and substance in the story, undoubtedly so … and I am saying that is a good thing. All the more reason for my overall disappointment. I walked out thinking what could have been … if only. Rated M, Jasper Jones scores a 5½ to 6 out of 10.
Director: Rachel Perkins
Cast: Aaron McGrath, Toni Colette, Hugo Weaving, Levi Miller, Angourie Rice, Dan Wyllie, Toni Collette
Release Date: 2 March 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television