The films and television work of Rachel Perkins have ensured a strong representation of Indigenous Australian voices in the media over the last decade or so. Mabo and The First Australians both documented the legacy of European contact and colonisation, while musical comedy Bran Nue Dae was a self-assured celebration filtered through a kitschy retro vibe.
JASPER JONES, an adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel, sits somewhere between these two as a powerful coming-of-age drama with a lot to say about race in Australia. Set in the mining town of Corrigan in Western Australia in the late 1960s, 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) has a nocturnal visit by fellow teen Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), a social outcast due to his mixed Anglo-Aboriginal heritage. Confronted with a shocking discovery, the pair must navigate a web of secrets and lies as the town turns itself inside-out in the coming days.
On the surface, JASPER JONES can be viewed as a localised spin on the coming-of-age adventures that mirror the American picaresque adventures of Tom Sawyer. Yet at the core of the narrative is deep examination of race in Australia, from the Vietnam War era treatment of the family of Jeffrey Liu (Kevin Long), Charlie’s best friend, to the automatic suspicion and abuse in custody of the titular Jasper Jones. Here it becomes more akin to To Kill a Mockingbird, with Charlie’s dad (Dan Wyllie) an Atticus Finch type without the resolve.
Mark Wareham’s stellar photography often lurks in dimly lit locales, providing genuine shocks and warm summer moments in equal measure. Selling this conceit are the wonderful characters that populate Corrigan, each with their own concealed truths. Toni Collete’s mother character is a villain of sorts, at least from the perspective of young Charlie, but her performance (like all things in a young boy’s mind) is magnified. Similarly, Hugo Weaving looms large as Mad Jack Lionel, the ultimate small-town outsider whose legend is bigger than his tragic past.
Yet its Miller and McGrath, the latter in his debut feature, who make the film their own in the midst of massive star talent. The friendship that forms between Jasper and Charlie is in spite of these cultural norms, providing a guiding light in a film that goes to some very dark places. Coupled with a charming turn from The Nice Guys‘ Angourie Rice, it’s a true youth ensemble that recalls the great childhood adventures you never had. Not just a great adaptation, but one of the best and most heartfelt Australian films of the last decade.