The New Boy – movie review

An indigenous lad (Aswan Reid) reshapes the lives of those living at a remote monastery in 1940s Australia in Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy.

The outback facility serves as a mission for Aboriginal children. It’s run by a feisty, renegade nun, Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett). At the time only men could operate missions. But the elderly monk who was in charge died a year earlier, so Sister Eileen has been secretly running the place since. One night, a new boy is delivered to the monastery. He doesn’t speak English (eventually he lets out the odd “Amen”). Until now, he has been living a nomadic tribal life. He has no concept of Western norms.

Dubbed The New Boy, he quickly picks up on things and soon understands the pecking order, and how to make it work. He’s intelligent, his survival instincts are sharp and he seems to have special powers, which he uses for healing as well as for his own entertainment. The arrival of special religious treasure, a life-size carving of Jesus on the cross, really shakes things up. The new boy is transfixed, but his indigenous spiritual life and mysterious spiritual powers don’t fit comfortably with the mission’s orderly Christianity. This leads to a series of unsettling encounters.

As writer, director and cinematographer, Warwick Thornton has created an intriguing master work. Little needs to be said, but the message is clear – a round peg doesn’t necessarily fit into a square hole. Thornton is adept at displaying the dichotomy between Christianity and indigenous spirituality. Clearly, indoctrination doesn’t suit everyone.

Despite Cate Blanchett’s significant presence, this is clearly Aswan Reid’s film. The newcomer is phenomenal.  The camera loves him. He makes his presence felt from the first frame and I, for one, couldn’t get enough of him. Importantly, he is able to capture the essence of his character with very few words. Blanchett throws herself into the role of the driven but troubled monastery head with gusto. I also appreciated the empathetic portrayal of chief cook and bottle washer Sister Mum by Deborah Mailman. Wayne Blair’s restrained characterisation of George, an indigenous man concerned about how the new boy could rock the boat for him, hits the mark.

The independent nature of the filmmaking – it’s not a straightforward narrative – won’t suit all tastes, but I found The New Boy compelling viewing.

Alex First

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