Thursday, 16 March 2017

Movie Review: Jasper Jones (2017)



Ah, Levi Miller; it takes something truly special to cause a feedback loop between my willingness to promote child actors and my propensity for labelling Australian actors as warning signals that a film they are attached to will be garbage. To be fair, I doubt anyone could make “my first lead role was in Pan” sound like a promising start to a career; even the established actors in that thing barely escaped with their livelihoods intact. But once you follow that up with the truly lacklustre follow-up to an Aussie classic that is Red Dog: True Blue, things start looking a little dicey. I mean, we’re supposed to be good at supporting our own burgeoning talent and even we’re struggling with this kid. Well, maybe today’s film will be different… and by that, I mean that I am sincerely hoping that today’s film will be different. This is Jasper Jones.

The plot: After being woken up by Jasper (Aaron L. McGrath), Charlie (Levi Miller) is alerted to the body of a local girl hung by the neck from a tree. Wanting to clear his name, knowing that the locals would likely try and pin the death on the half-Aborigine Jasper, he and Charlie set out to find the real killer. However, even though they suspect local recluse Mad Jack (Hugo Weaving), Charlie will soon discover that things in his rural town are far grimmer than he previously thought.

How’s the acting here? I’ll put it this way: Toni Collette as Charlie’s mother is playing an absolute basket case and can honestly be difficult to watch at times… and even she is fantastic in this thing. Opposite her, Dan Wyllie is great as Charlie’s dad with some really touching scenes between them. As for Charlie himself, thank The Dude, Miller is given a character worth performing this time around as he gives this very geeky focal point character a lot of heart and grounding. Kevin Long as Charlie’s best mate Jeffrey is incredibly awkward as a character, but credit to him that it comes across more endearing than grating, Angourie Rice as the dead girl’s sister continues her cinematic winning streak with a nicely underplayed depiction of grief and McGrath works really well with the racial tensions built into his character. And then there’s Hugo Weaving, and even though he only gets one scene to really shine… holy hell. It takes someone of awesome skill to pack this much pathos into a single conversation and he delivers brilliantly.

I brought up True Blue earlier not just because of Miller’s involvement, but also because this film seems to exist in a similar tonal pattern as that film. Namely, that it juxtaposes dead-set drama and Ocker-brand comedy in a way that really shouldn’t work. Except this time, it actually does. The comedic touches come largely as a result of the conversations between Charlie and Jeffrey, complete with games of Would You Rather because those exchanges will never not go into weird places, and the drama is as a result of the actual plot. Honestly, it’s down to how both sides are handled, with the darker moments being given the gravitas that they dearly deserve and the generously-sprinkled humour throughout leading to some pretty nice moments.

The film, and its advertising, purports to be a murder mystery, written in that usual YA style where the adults are the least useful tools in the film’s world while the kids/teenagers actually get things done. Now, while that assumption is half-right, that’s only in the competence of the younglings. The “mystery” of the story is almost non-existent, with large swathes of the film existing without even mentioning it. It’s appears at the start and then seems to just fade in and out of the film’s attention span at random. Hell, once the film actually takes time out to focus on it, it ends up going down some rather clich├ęd avenues; it’s not that difficult to see who is, or more importantly isn’t, going to be involved.

However, that would be implying that the film’s focus is the mystery surrounding Emily’s death. It becomes very clear early on that this story has far different ideas in mind. Instead, it uses the backdrop of the Vietnam War-era Australian outback to look into what it means to be an outsider. Specifically, outsiders in skin tone as well as socially. I’ve probably put too fine a point of this when discussing Australian cinema, but cultural examination is what we seem to be best at; this is most definitely not an exception to that. As we see how Jeffrey and his family are treated throughout, the (unfortunately accurate) assumptions made by Jasper about how the townspeople will react to the death, not to mention the imposed alienation that can be brought on by one’s own family, we get a very clear image of a town breathing in the distrust they have for each other. Without getting into explicit *SPOILER* territory, Hugo Weaving ends up dropping the bomb when it comes to isolation and how it relates to racial prejudices. The way the film ultimately ends is rather anticlimactic, especially considering the scenes that directly lead to it, but then again, we’re dealing with a story about racial distrust. Why should this wrap everything up nicely when we can’t even do that today, 40-plus years after the setting of this film?

All in all, while not quite as advertised, this is still a very sharp look at racial tensions through the eyes of an innocent. The acting is top-notch, giving Levi Miller a much needed booster shot for his acting career, the approach to both drama and comedy is well-balanced and the look at the nature and treatment of outsiders presented to us with a potency that is dangerously close to Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Between this, Lion and even the previously maligned Teenage Kicks, this is shaping up to a pretty good year for Aussie cinema. It’s better than Patriots Day, as the racial themes here resonate just a little bit stronger emotionally. However, on that same note of emotional investment, Manchester By The Sea’s dramatic atom bomb was stronger still than the one found here.

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