It’s 1969 in the Western Australian mining town of Corrigan. 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is your average teen, trying to make sense of the world, until an unexpected visitor changes things forever.
This quiet, bookish young man is thrust into a murky world of innocence lost, courage and death, when local mixed-race teen Jasper Jones, played by Aaron McGrath, comes knocking on his window one night. Together, this unlikely team must solve the mystery of what happened to Laura Wishart, a young local girl who has gone missing. Unbeknown to the wider Corrigan community, Jasper has found her lifeless body – a coincidence no townsfolk are likely to believe given his rebellious reputation and outcast status.
Based on the 2009 novel by Western Australian author Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones is a coming-of-age tale that deals beautifully with difficult issues that are as prevalent today as they were in 1969 – race, friendship and family breakdowns. The novel has been likened to Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, due to its similar themes. The film is directed by Rachel Perkins, who is perhaps best known for another Australian coming-of-age film, the 2010 musical-comedy-drama Bran Nue Dae.
The plot is driven by Laura’s disappearance, the angst of the township as a result of her vanishing and the racial torment running rife. Charlie sees beyond differences and is a shining beacon of hope against racism of the era, which is fuelled by lingering attitudes towards Aboriginal Australians and by the raging Vietnam War.
Charlie’s relationship with Jasper and Vietnamese neighbour Jeffrey Lu are testament to his role as an ‘outsider’ of the town – the very reason Jasper Jones comes to him for help, although this idea of Charlie being an outsider is very much underdeveloped in the film. Scene-stealer Jeffrey, played by Kevin Wong, is a stand out – funny, intelligent and cool in the face of red-hot racism directed at him and his family. He takes it in his stride without reacting with violence like the older, Caucasian townsfolk.
The only disappointment in this aspect of the story was how Jeffrey gains acceptance and popularity among his peers – by being good at something. Perhaps in an ideal world, acceptance wouldn’t be subject to sporting talents and achievements, but as Jasper Jones suggests, there is no perfect world, regardless of social standing, family name or race.
Hugo Weaving plays a reclusive war veteran whom Jasper believes to be the dead girl’s killer, while Toni Collette and Dan Wyllie play Charlie’s mother and father, who are living on the knife’s edge of separation. Charlie’s mother longs for a sense of adventure and to escape the banal – a problem only exacerbated by Charlie’s dad spending long hours alone at his typewriter. Matt Nagle has a small role as the local police ‘sarge’ while Angourie Rice is Eliza Wishart, Laura’s sister and Charlie’s love interest.
The film starts with a brief narrative from Charlie, which doesn’t continue throughout the film, unlike the novel. There are some subtle differences between the mediums, but pre-teens, teens and fans of the novel should enjoy this telling all the same.
Jasper Jones is a wonderful example of how great Australian cinema can be – personable characters who grow as the film progresses, an intriguing storyline and an ability to tackle important themes through relationships and behaviours. If the kids are bugging you to take them to see a movie, this is one for the whole family.
Jasper Jones will screen in Australian cinemas from Thursday, 2nd March 2017. You can watch the trailer and read more information here.