Australian cinema is something that I struggle with: the films that have the widest release or the biggest publicity are often not that great, so with the exception of a small few I don’t have many Australian films I like. But rarely is there a film so Australian as Jasper Jones that I actually get lost in; let alone getting lost in the rural setting most of all.
Adapted from the new classic Australian book, Jasper Jones is the story of teenage Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) who lives in the small town of Corrigan, Western Australia, in the 1960s. When he and the titular Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), an Aboriginal teenager, find Jasper’s girlfriend Laura hanged by the river, they goes on a journey to find out who’s responsible.
Though it is an Aussie high school staple, I’ve never read Jasper Jones, and as a lover of small-town whodunnits, I was quite disappointed by the movie’s big reveal. The movie spends much of its runtime setting up the small-town Australian period drama, focusing on the families and the prejudice swirling through the town, but this leaves the resolution to this scandalous mystery underwhelming and unsatisfying, since it comes out of nowhere for all the wrong reasons. The set-up is blink and you’ll miss it, and the red herring too obvious; instead, the film chooses to focus in on Charlie’s family drama.
This decision, however, was not misguided, as this proved to be Jasper Jones’ greatest strength: the dynamic within the Bucktin family, of selfish mum Ruth (who is made a woman to pity rather than despise by Toni Collette), sensitive father Wes (Dan Wyllie) and curious young Charlie (though inexperienced, Miller has promise), was electric, particularly in its Corrigan setting in the 1960s. The town feels so alive throughout Jasper Jones: the town meeting in the local hall, the New Years’ Eve festival in the middle of town, and even the old hardcovers in the library all contribute a sense of both fondness and fear for such a complex time in Australia’s history, and really amplify the film’s sense of unease that revolves around its murder-mystery core.
This context also led to fascinating commentary on race-relations in Australia during the time, of which director Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now) does so well, allowing the vilification subplot of Charlie’s friend Jeffrey and his Vietnamese family to be one of the very effective emotional cores of the film. But the highlight scene of the film was Jasper’s connection with Hugo Weaving’s Mad Jack Lionel, the moment zeroing in on Jasper’s complex family and Mad Jack’s varied past; both actors give truly brilliant performances, creating a relationship that the film should have focused on, given that the title is Jasper Jones.
Jasper Jones succeeds at one thing, but tries to be something else; even though the murder mystery acts as an agent for the family drama around it, it fails to be a successful ending for the film. The family drama surrounding it, however, is wonderful, allowing esteemed actors and newcomers alike to paint the oh-so-real interactions of small-town life and highlight the perks and complexities of living in a town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Though lacking its AHA! moment, Jasper Jones is an interesting look back at Australia’s small-town past.
Even with its very small cast, there’s some pretty big names on the call sheet for Jasper Jones, so here’s my top five favourite films and TV shows starring the cast of Jasper Jones:
- Cosi – Toni Collette
- The Matrix – Hugo Weaving
- About a Boy – Toni Collette
- Captain America: The First Avenger – Hugo Weaving
- Little Miss Sunshine – Toni Collette
Photo taken from IMDB.com: