Adapted from a successful book and play, Jasper Jones is a well-crafted, timely treatise on small-town prejudice and its macrocosmic implications that quickly falls victim to the ‘Australian film’ genre.
The bookish Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) lives an unassuming life as an only child in the rural town of Corrigin, Western Australia. His life is turned upside down when local indigenous outcast Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath) comes to his window at night, shows him the body of a local woman, and pleads for Charlie’s help in proving that he’s innocent of her murder.
This small-town whodunit has whisperings of the excellent Brick, but little of the style. Director Rachel Perkins of Blackfella Films (Bran Nue Dae, Redfern Now) is known for her polish and her championing of indigenous stories, though one is more prevalent than the other here: the title character is a ghost, rarely seen but haunting every carefully composed frame.
For a film that so directly tackles rural prejudice – a conversation we need to be having in this country right now – its characters of colour have remarkably little screentime. This is, of course, down to focusing on the perspective of a white protagonist, but it’s a noteworthy compromise. Fortunately, future stars like Kevin Long (Charlie’s friend Jeffrey Lu) make the most of their moments; McGrath is compelling as Jones, a powerful screen presence.
The film, novel and play have the air of an Australian To Kill A Mockingbird, replacing the stalwart Atticus Finch with a pubescent boy whose keen sense of injustice is tested by his conservative community. Miller’s Charlie is an everyman, a blank slate, and it’s only later in the film that Miller distinguishes himself as an actor capable of more than showing surprise.
His surrounds are all too familiar – like Red Dog and too many other examples, Jasper Jones approaches Australiana as genre constraint. A powerful story is thereby muted, robbed of some of its potency, because it looks and sounds too much like every other film coming out of the country. Name one Australian film in which Toni Collette isn’t somebody’s frustrated mother, or Hugo Weaving a rambling madman, misunderstood.
That said, the cinematography is indicative of our great local talent, as are the quality performances across the board. Had Perkins displayed more of her personal flair, this may have been one of the best Australian films of the year.
As it is, it’s a compelling narrative executed by numbers, and a sign that, like the people of Corrigin, we need to look closely at ourselves and see what most needs changing.