Murder mysteries and coming of age tales are among the most overly common story plots used today in literature and cinema. From the U.S. to the U.K. to points around and between, both plots – both alone and combined – they seem to be among the most popular story types among viewers and readers alike. Yet it seems in so many cases that between the genres, that there is little variance from one story to the next. Luckily though, every now and then, a little variance does happen along. Enter the Australian import Jasper Jones. Originally released in Australia on March 2, 2017, this powerfully moving human drama made its domestic debut this past April courtesy of the independent movie studio Film Movement. Billed as “Australia’s Stand By Me,” this deeply engrossing story can also be likened in part to To Kill A Mockingbird. That is evident in the movie’s writing, which forms the foundation of the movie’s presentation. It will be discussed shortly. The cast’s on-screen work adds to the movie’s presentation, too and will keep viewers just as engaged as the movie’s central story. It will be discussed a little later. The bonus cast interviews put the final touch to the movie’s home presentation. It will also be discussed later. Each element is critical in its own way to the whole of this story. All things considered, they make Jasper Jones a movie that fans of murder mysteries and coming-of-age flicks alike will appreciate from its home country all the way to America and points in-between.
Film Movement and Screen Australia’s gripping human drama Jasper Jones is a powerful cinematic work that crime drama and coming-of-age fans around the globe will appreciate. That includes American audiences who maybe are looking for something different from the constant run-of-the-mill gory crime dramas that so permeate television and theaters here in this country. That is due in no small part to its story. Unlike so many American movies and television crime dramas, this story relies solely on writing instead of blood and gore (which is what it seems so many American crime dramas rely on today) to keep viewers engaged. Here, audiences find a young boy named Charlie who…well…comes of age after being pulled into the mystery of a young girl’s death by a young man who the whole town dislikes. The townspeople dislike Jasper, it would seem, purely out of some personal bias. That bias comes into play later when the family of Charlie’s friend Jeffrey Lu is harassed by white members of the community in retaliation for Jeffrey helping his cricket team win a match. That’s getting off topic. Getting back on topic, Charlie is forced to keep secret what Jasper has revealed to him as the pair tries to figure out who killed the girl. It just so happens that the girl is the sister of Charlie’s love interest, Eliza (played here by Angourie Rice – Spiderman: Homecoming, The Nice Guys, The Beguiled). This complicates things even more until Eliza herself reveals a troubling truth about her sister’s death that puts everything on its ear, especially after the revelation of the red herring. What’s interesting about the red herring (who won’t be revealed here) is that the inclusion of the character in question, is where the comparison to Harper Collins’ great novel To Kill A Mockingbird comes into play. The character and its inclusion can so easily be likened to the use of Boo Radley in the novel in question. While all of this is going on, Charlie (who honestly, in this critic’s view looks like Joshua Jackson from his time in Disney’s Mighty Ducks franchise when he was around that age) also has to deal with family issues at home. His parents are constantly fighting, his mother is cheating on his dad (played by Dan Wyllie – The Hunter, No Activity, Muriel’s Wedding), and he is just trying to navigate it all. One can’t deny that at times, the balance between this element and the main story does cause the movie to get bogged down in itself a little bit, but thankfully it’s not so much that it makes the movie unwatchable. Rather, it could have perhaps been a little bit better balanced as it seems at times to bounce back and forth as part of the overall story. Either way, this plot element and the story’s main plot still work well enough together to keep audiences engaged throughout the course of the roughly 103-minute (1-hour, 43-minute) movie. Of course when it’s all said and done, audiences will also agree that the story overall is so powerful that one absolutely must be in a certain mindset in order to appreciate the movie’s emotional depth. It’s not one of those stories that one can just turn on any time. It really demands that much and that kind of emotional attention and connection in order to fully appreciate it’s depth. Keeping that in mind, the movie’s story is a key piece of its presentation that forms a strong foundation for its presentation. That foundation is strengthened even more through the cast’s on-camera work.
The cast’s work on camera throughout this story is so critical to note because of the story’s emotional depth. It is not an easy story to take in, being so deep. That being the case, it was key for the cast to do its utmost to help illustrate that emotional depth. Each cast member did just that, beginning with lead star Levi Miller, who plays Charlie. Miller, who is a relative newcomer to the movie industry according to IMDB (it lists no film or TV credits to his name) is to be commended for his handling of Charlie as Charlie has to come to terms with everything going on in his life. One of the moments in which he shows he deserves such credit is the subtle moment early on when Jeffrey (Kevin Long – another relative newcomer to the business — is asking Charlie a bunch of “would you rather” questions on the pair’s ride to school. Charlie is clearly lost in his thoughts of what Jasper revealed to him, and it would have been so easy for Miller to go over the top in his handling of Charlie’s mentality at the moment. Instead though, he made Charlie’s mindset fully believable as someone who has really got too much for someone of such age on his mind. Miller’s handling of Charlie as he continues to struggle to tell Eliza what he discovered of her sister is another good example of what makes his work so endearing. Again, it would have been so easy for him to ham up those dramatic moments, yet his subtle acting in those moments added to the story’s tension. Even how he handled his growing frustration toward his mother, Ruth (Toni Collette – Little Miss Sunshine, The Sixth Sense, Muriel’s Wedding) shows so much talent for such a young actor.
Miller’s performance throughout the story here is definitely worthy of applause. His isn’t the only applause-worthy performance, though. Collette’s work as Ruth Bucktin, Charlie’s mom, cannot and should not be overlooked. As Collette noted in the movie’s bonus interviews (the interviews will be discussed a little later), Ruth is in a place in this story in which she is trying to make sense of her life. The thing is, Ruth trying to make sense of her life makes it so easy for viewers to hate Ruth. From over reacting to the local death mystery (including forcing her son to do unnecessary back-breaking manual labor, which likely would have gotten her arrested today) to her cheating ways, Ruth is just a completely troubled character who has got a lot of problems. There is just no defending her, which it would seem is what the story was aiming for. It helped to illustrate the emotional strife that Charlie was going through and having to navigate as he also dealt with the knowledge of the girl’s death. So kudos goes to Mrs. Collette for her portrayal of Ruth. She really proves to be one of this story’s unsung stars. Hers is still not the last of the notable performances included in this movie. Aaron L. McGrath (The Code, Around The Block, Ready For This) who plays the movie’s title character, deserves his own share of attention, too.
Considering that the movie is named after Jasper, but it is never explained why everyone instantly assumes he’s responsible for the disappearance of Eliza’s sister or why he appears so little on camera, McGrath does a good job of adding his own tension to the story when he is on camera. His best moment comes as he confronts Mad Jack and is forced to face a certain dark reality that will surprise everyone. The way in which McGrath presents Jasper’s mix of pained emotion as he points the rifle at Mad Jack makes one really feel for Jasper. That’s because it shows how much Jasper really cared about Eliza’s sister. This is another one of those moments in which an actor could so easily go way too far over the top, yet McGrath didn’t. Rather, he handled the moment expertly, pulling audiences in and holding them through the whole sequence. It’s just one more way in which the cast’s on-camera work here is so critical to the movie’s presentation. Each of the other cast members could just as easily be cited here, but there’s not enough time or space to pay each one the time they deserve. Keeping that in mind, the cast’s work, as shown here, couples with the story’s writing to do plenty to keep audiences completely engaged in the story from start to end. It still is not the last element to note in examining the movie’s whole. The bonus cast interviews included in the movie’s home release are also of note.
Miller’s sit-down is one of the more notable of the cast interviews. His discussion on Charlie’s relationship with his parents shows the seriousness of that element of Charlie’s personal growth. The same can be said of his understanding of Charlie’s own growth from the beginning of the story to the end. His appreciation for author Craig Silvey (who wrote the book on which Jasper Jones is based) shows just as much his maturity in handling his on-screen responsibilities. One must remember in taking in these and other discussions brought up during his interview, that this is a young man who apparently had little to no screen credits coming into his role. So to hear such frank and mature discussion shows this young man is certain to have a solid acting career if given the chance. Director Rachel Perkins’ discussion on balancing the movie’s dark and light elements shows a real focus on that key detail. It’s refreshing to hear such serious attention so as to not let the movie be too depressing. Her discussions on the cast, and what made each cast member the right choice adds even more appreciation for each cast member’s work, speaking again of the cast’s work. Her discussion on the movie’s reach and accessibility is jus as enlightening because she shows she understands the importance of properly adapting a literary work to the cinematic world. She notes that Craig Silvey approved the script’s final draft, which clearly lifted a great burden from her. It’s a fun, yet clearly appreciative moment that shows how serious she took getting the adaptation right. The discussion on how the movie addresses race relations at the time at that part of the country is enlightening in its own right. Between these discussions and others that she shares, Perkins’ discussions show yet again the importance of the movie’s bonus interviews. They really add their own strength to the overall foundation of the movie’s presentation. That is shown through the other noted interviews and those not directly noted. When all of the interviews are considered along with the movie’s story and the cast’s work throughout, the end result is a work that drama fans – not just crime drama fans – the world over will appreciate.
Jasper Jones might not be one of the best-known human/crime dramas to be released in recent years. Yet, it is a human/crime drama that clearly deserves more attention than it has already gotten. That is because it has so much to offer fans of both genres beginning with its gripping story. The story follows its young protagonist as he has to navigate the waters of keeping a dark secret while also dealing with what is a difficult home life. Yes, it does get a little bogged down at time, but not to the point that it makes one want to skip through any scenes. That’s a tribute to those charged with adapting the original literary work to the screen. The cast’s work adds to the story, giving audiences just as much to appreciate, as has been noted. The bonus interviews included in the movie’s home release strengthen the movie’s foundation even more, and in turn, show once more the importance of bonus material to any movie, domestic or otherwise. When all three elements are jointly considered, they present Jasper Jones as one of this year’s best unknown foreign import flicks. It is available now. More information on this and other titles from Film Movement is available online now at:
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