image of Jasper Charlie and Eliza in the woods

Toni Collete is heart-breaking as Charlie’s mother in this Australian coming-of-age tale.

Craig Silvey’s 2009 novel Jasper Jones has become a modern classic in Australian literature, telling a dark, moving and often quite funny story of prejudice in Corrigan, a small Western Australian town in the 1960s.

The book has picked up several awards and plenty of adult and teenage fans since its release in 2009, and has been called Australia’s answer to To Kill a Mockingbird. Much like the 1960’s novel, it features a young protagonist, 13-year-old Charlie Bucktin, who comes to the realisation that justice isn’t as simple as once believed.

Also like To Kill a Mockingbird, it now has a screen adaptation.

Though for Jasper Jones, the screen adaption fell flat. It explores some unusually dark subject matter for a film aimed primarily at family audiences. Perhaps that is why a lot of the depth found in the book was omitted, and rather than focusing on one or two particular issues and executing them brilliantly, the film rather touched on too many – it touched on prejudice, it touched on racism, it touched on adultery, it touched on suicide, it touched on sexual abuse. It left the whole film feeling rather flat, with no deepness or intensity.

Set in the fictional town of Corrigan, the film, directed by Rachel Perkins, also responsible for Bran Nue Dae – was shot in the WA town of Pemberton. The atmosphere of bike rides, long nights in the woods and small town secrets demonstrates Perkins finding that sweet spot between childish goofiness and adult drama. And aided by the rich wide-screen cinematography of Mark Wareham and musical accompaniments by Antony Partos, the film, visually, is beautiful to watch.

Toni Collete and Dan Wylie sitting side by side at a town meeting

The presence of Toni Collette and Hugo Weaving in pivotal supporting roles lend the film some of its best moments. Collette, in particular, is heart-breaking as Ruth, Charlie’s often-neglectful but loving mother who reaches her own breaking point. Dan Wylie complements her beautifully with a portrayal of the husband and father who withdraws further and further into his writing. Hugo Weaving’s portrayal of Mad Jack Lion, the recluse on the edge of town whose legend is bigger than his tragic past, shows his transformation into the Grand Elder of Australian Cinema.

Levi Miller (Charlie) and Aaron McGrath (Jasper), the latter in his debut feature, are who make the film their own in the midst of massive star talent. The friendship that forms between Jasper and Charlie in spite of these cultural norms provides a guiding light in a film that goes, vaguely, to some dark places. Coupled with Angourie Rice (Eliza) who was also in The Nice Guys, it’s a true youth ensemble that recalls great childhood adventures.

Photographs from Screen Australia