Jasper Jones director Rachel Perkins’ engrossing and enthralling adaptation of Craig Silvey’s iconic Australian coming of age novel, takes us back to a time when childhood dreams were all about courage and adventures. It was about discovering the unknown, keeping secrets and making bonds for life.
Adventures are in short supply in 1960s Corrigan, though Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) escapes the town by devouring the prose of Mark Twain and engaging in heated superhero arguments with his best friend, Jeffery Lu (Kevin Long). One night Charlie’s dreams are shattered by a midnight tap on the window from Corrigan outcast, Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), who leads Charlie into the woods where the body of Jasper’s girlfriend Laura is hanging lifeless from a tree.
Jasper is panicking, convinced that his reputation and mixed-race will see him convicted of the crime which he screams he didn’t do. Charlie believes him and agrees to help him track down the real culprit.
In times of crisis, communities often close ranks, and it is here we see why Jasper reached out to Charlie in the first place – they are both outsiders struggling to find their path in a town full of suspicions. These boil over as the police start to investigate Laura’s disappearance and Perkins uses this to expose and confront unsettling elements of small town politics and Corrigan’s casually ingrained, though at times deliberate, streak of racism.
Charlie literally has the weight of the town on his shoulders, and constantly looks like he will buckle from the pressure of what he knows. Miller perfectly captures this conflicted nature. None more so than in scenes with Laura’s sister, Eliza (Angourie Rice), with whom he shares conversations of wide-eyed importance, sprinkled with inklings of whole other kind of adventure between the two.
Charlie’s relentless investigation leads him into conflict with both his mother (the always reliable Toni Collette) and Mad Jack Lionel, a local scary recluse with a gun on the porch and a car in the garden, played by a fully committed Hugo Weaving. Thankfully though, Jasper finds some much needed emotional support from his father, played quietly by Dan Wyllie.
Cinematographer, Mark Wareham, captures both the beauty and the danger of the bush, that unique cover of darkness and feeling of sneaking out beyond your bedtime when your parents think you are asleep. As we follow Charlie and Jasper into the woods or creeping into Mad Jacks’ house, you feel like you are on their shoulder, one of the gang, holding your breath with your heart pounding in your chest.
Jasper Jones will almost inevitably be compared to the classic coming of age epic, Stand By Me, though it deserves to be spoken of in the same breath. Both films capture the immediacy, all-consuming and breathlessly magnified nature of childhood discoveries and adventures. It is simply one of the best Australian films of recent years and needs to be seen by more people – Canberra, you know what to do.