“Courage is resistance to fear; mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
In Jasper Jones, fourteen-year-old protagonist Charlie Bucktin reads these lines from a book in the opening scenes and immediately, the thematic struggle between courage and fear is underway and continues without drawing breath throughout the entire film.
Based on Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel of the same title, Jasper Jones is a new Australian film that successfully combines the coming of age story with the whodunit, while mixing in empathetic notes of betrayal, love and small town living all at once. Set in Corrigan, Western Australia in 1969, Jasper Jones brings together two young boys who are both social outcasts: 14-year-old Charlie who is bookish and clever, and half-Indigenous Jasper, on whom the town will blame anything. One night, Jasper taps on Charlie’s window and asks him for help. There’s a girl hanging from a noose in the bush, and Jasper swears that he didn’t do it, but he needs Charlie’s help to find out who did. Courageously, Charlie agrees.
Throughout the film, Bran Nue Dae director Rachel Perkins takes the viewer on a visually impressive journey. There are many moments of stunning shot composition, particularly in Charlie and Jasper’s continued return to the scene of the body in the bush at night. When the teenage boys approach the tall trees, the boys seem to shrink in size. Perkins does an excellent job of visually portraying the boys, particularly Charlie, as being out of their depth.
This notion of standing on the precipice of adulthood has a strong presence throughout Jasper Jones. Charlie’s first step in solving the murder mystery is to visit the local library and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – a moment of endearing, childish naivety sure to have viewers giggling. There are many excellent moments of humour peppered throughout the film, mostly propelled by Charlie’s attempts at acting in a way that he perceives to be mature. However, the film does also highlight the adolescent frustration at not being taken seriously by adults, and does so in a way that is pitch-perfect.
Of course, racism is a theme that permeates Jasper Jones. Corrigan is rife with xenophobia, both against Jasper and the Vietnamese family the Lu’s. Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey Lu endures racist slurs at the cricket club, and neighborhood racists driving through the Lu’s front fence and ripping up their garden. It is in these moments that Charlie’s role as protagonist is most effective – he, like many of us today, simply can’t comprehend the hatefulness of the less open-minded generation that comes before him.
The performances shine brightly. Fourteen-year-old Levi Miller excels as Charlie, portraying the uncertainty of adolescence in a way that makes him endearing and easy to watch. Equally, Aaron McGrath’s Jasper is tormented, confused and in desperate need of help. He completely and wholly is Jasper Jones, his performance convincing and empathetic. These two young actors propel the story forward and will undoubtedly make you want to keep watching. Equally, the adult cast is uncompromising in talent – Toni Collete as Ruth Bucktin, Dan Wyllie as Wes Bucktin and Hugo Weaving as Mad Jack Lionel. Weaving’s role is small, but incredibly powerful and above all, convincing.
If I can offer one criticism, it is that I believe the entire film would benefit from ending ten minutes before it actually does. I believe that the plot may benefit from a more open ending. That being said, Jasper Jones is undoubtedly the most effective book-to-film adaptation that I can recall seeing. Perhaps this can be attributed to Craig Silvey’s role as scriptwriter, but perhaps it is simply just an excellent film.