The loss of childhood innocence and the suffocating despair of adulthood come together in “Jasper Jones,” a beautifully composed portrait of life in late-’60s small-town Australia. Centered on a 14-year-old boy caught up in a murder mystery involving a part-Aboriginal suspect, this outstanding adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel will appeal strongly to teenage and adult audiences. Boasting excellent performances by young actors Aaron McGrath, Levi Miller (“Pan”) and Angourie Rice (“The Nice Guys”), and with Toni Collette in top form as the protagonist’s frustrated mother, this is the best film yet by director Rachel Perkins (“Bran Nue Dae”). Everything points to a successful local release on March 2. Offshore theatrical exposure is not out of the question.
Published in 2009 and since adapted for several highly acclaimed stage productions, Silvey’s source material is regarded as something of a Down Under “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Tackling themes of prejudice, class, justice and death through the inquiring eyes of a teenager who dreams of being a writer, “Jasper” also invokes the spirit of films such as “Stand by Me,” in which youngsters take very adult matters into their own hands.
The richly layered screenplay by Silvey and Shaun Grant (“The Snowtown Murders”) opens with teenage Charlie Bucktin (Miller) receiving a late-night plea for help from the title character (McGrath), an Anglo-Aboriginal teenager branded as chief trouble-maker in the fictional Western Australian town of Corrington. Although Charlie has never spoken to Jasper before, he follows him to a watering hole where the corpse of Jasper’s white girlfriend, 16-year-old Laura Wishart (Nandalie Campbell Killick), swings from a nearby eucalyptus tree. Jasper claims the perpetrator is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a reclusive war veteran rumored to have killed a woman many years ago.
Charlie’s decision to believe Jasper and help solve the case vividly captures that moment in youth when a dramatic event can abruptly turn the world into a much more complex, exciting and risky place. This sudden swirl of conflicting emotions has the greatest impact for Charlie on his relationship with secret crush Eliza (Angourie Rice). A precocious girl who hangs out at the local library and is obsessed with Holly Golightly (Charlie, meanwhile, reads Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” for research purposes), Eliza also happens to be the missing girl’s sister. Charlie’s attempt to remain loyal to Jasper and hide the truth from Eliza while also falling truly and madly in love for her is the film’s glowing emotional core.
Already an engaging mystery and a lovely depiction of teenage romance with unusual complications, “Jasper” hits top gear when Charlie’s investigations uncover dark community secrets and harsh truths about his parents. Collette is dynamite as Charlie’s mom, Ruth, whose outward appearance as a happy housewife masks a crushing belief that life has passed her by and there’s nothing left in her marriage to Wes (Dan Wyllie) a mild-mannered schoolteacher. A scene in which Ruth gives Charlie an uncensored speech about her deep state of despair is positively electrifying.
Adding humor and punchy social commentary to the mix is Charlie’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long, debuting splendidly), an irrepressibly optimistic Vietnamese immigrant with an unexpected talent for the very Australian sport of cricket. The boys’ running conversations about comic-book heroes and the true nature of courage serve the tale wonderfully well.
Perkins gets the very best out of her talented cast and manages the not inconsiderable feat of delivering a marvelously entertaining and ultimately uplifting tale that’s devoid of even the slightest hint of sugary sentiment. Mark Wareham’s gorgeously composed widescreen images, Veronika Jenet’s precise editing and Antony Partos’ delicate score are highlights of the tip-top technical package.