Jasper Jones (2017)

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The classic Aussie country town thriller is a genre of its own with familiar ingredients that vary only in how they are mixed. Jasper Jones (2017) nestles into this space, blending a coming-of-age melodrama, romantic-comedy and a thriller mystery. By throwing in every genre ingredient it found in the pantry, success might seem assured … but maybe not.

The plot is drawn from the 2009 book of the same name. Thirteen year-old Charlie Bucktin is awakened one night by local Aboriginal bad-boy Jasper Jones who pleads for help in hiding a body. They swear secrecy in order to keep Jasper out of jail and set about discovering who is responsible. That’s the simple narrative path, with excitement provided by several sub-plots along the way, all of which will be familiar. The boys suspect reclusive old Mad Jack Lionel but their sleuthing exploits produce unexpected results; Charlie’s love-object is the mysterious Eliza whose family harbours dark secrets; best friend Kevin aspires to join a local cricket club that does not want immigrants; and Charlie’s high-strung parents are struggling in their marriage. All in all, it’s a typical Aussie country town with the usual list of caricatures.

Genre mashups can work well provided their elements cohere and the acting can carry the story, neither of which happens in this film. The separate sub-stories feel like a potpourri of disconnected ideas, many of which are left dangling unresolved. The titular Jasper Jones is little more than a background character who provides narrative continuity and a token symbol for racial tension. Charlie is the principal character and it is through his eyes we see the dysfunctionality of the town, his family, and his relationships. The film covers a lot of ground with a broad brush, touching everything lightly without penetration or depth.

For a story that deals with a gruesome tragedy as seen through innocent eyes, the film is remarkably free of emotion. The boys, for example, view the corpse with as much disdain as if it were an insect; Charlie’s crush limps from scene to scene without sign of a raised heartbeat; and Eliza’s mother learns the sinister truth with barely a grimace. In one scene, Charlie is punished for a minor disobedience by being forced to do something which defies logic, then the story moves on as if it never happened or was part of an absurdist Gothic tale. Charlie’s mother is the only character who shows any emotional range at all, but she is unstable and behaviourally extreme.

Jasper Jones has great cinematography that captures the iconic elements of outback Australia plus a stellar cast of Australian actors. Some have compared this film with To Kill a Mockingbird, a comparison that cannot seriously be sustained in a story that skips lightly over racism and country town small-mindedness. To keep its child-friendly rating, it also brushes over issues like suicide, marital infidelity, sexual abuse, and the persecution of difference. Despite several charming moments, the film struggles to be more than a moderately engaging montage of life in a dysfunctional Aussie outback town.

3

Director: Rachel Perkins

Stars:  Hugo Weaving, Angourie Rice, Toni Collette, Levi Miller

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