This is not a bad little movie.
Charlie, a young, white teenage lad, is asked for help by his aboriginal mate, Jasper Jones. Jasper has just found the dead body of his white girlfriend, Laura, hanging from a tree. Terrified that the local cops will pin the death on him, Jasper begs Charlie to help him hide Laura's body while they go in search of the killer. Jasper has an idea who the killer might be, and wants Charlie to help him nail the culprit.
But is it murder, or something else?
The search by the teenagers is the central premise of this intriguing little suspense thriller from Australian director Rachel Perkins. Adapted from a prize-winning novel by West Australian writer Craig Silvey, who also co-wrote the screenplay, this film is rather more than just an investigation of a mysterious death. The story is set in the West Australian (fictional) country town of Corrigan, in 1969. The movie is about life in a country town and the dark secrets that dwell there, as much as it is about the demise of Laura. This theme – the sinister country town – is a rich vein in Australian cinema history, going back to films such as "Wake In Fright" in the early 1970s. As the story digs deeper into the mystery of Laura, it also digs into the festering sores that lie just beneath the surface of this outwardly charming and beautiful rural town. Infidelity, racism, child abuse, corrupt local politicians, grief and anger from the Vietnam war – all these confront the youthful characters in this story as they try to discover why Laura died.
Since much of the action in this film is carried by teenage characters, most of the lead actors are very young. As Charlie, we have the excellent young Australian actor Levi Miller. I saw him only quite recently in "Red Dog True Blue", where he again gave a standout performance. So, too, here. Miller nicely conveys the innocence-confronting-evil, young-lad-growing-up aspects of Charlie. As Jasper, we have a very good performance from young aboriginal actor Aaron McGrath. He captures well a coloured country boy's fear of being unfairly targeted by the police and the local white community. Angourie Rice, as Laura's younger sister Eliza who is keen on Charlie, and Kevin Long, as Charlie's cricket-loving Vietnamese mate Jeffrey, offer sure, convincing support. Australia is blessed in having so many good, young actors available to play solid, meaty roles.
The adult actors, though largely playing supporting roles, are really very good. Chief among them is the indefatigable Toni Collette, who is outstanding as Charlie's mum. Talk about a classic "helicopter mum"! But she has a secret. Then there is Dan Wyllie, well-known from so many TV roles, as Charlie's basically decent, but put-upon, dad. And also keep a lookout for Matthew Nable, another well-known TV star, who plays the local police sergeant, who also has something to hide. And last, but by no means least, though his role is largely a cameo, is Hugo Weaving as Mad Jack Lionel, the mysterious local recluse feared or despised by just about everyone, but who holds a key secret about Jasper himself.
If I have any criticism of the movie, it is that its middle third is not quite up to the standard of its opening and closing parts. The moviemakers are not quite clear whether they wish the film to concentrate primarily on the mystery of Laura's death, or on unravelling the dark side of country town life. I felt the middle part of the movie strayed away from the central mystery, leaving it sitting in mid-air while Corrigan's peccadilloes are examined. Then the moviemakers suddenly decide "Gee, we'd better get back to sorting out Laura", and the final third of the film is a crackerjack one with a twist you probably won't see coming.
Yet there is much in this movie to admire. The performances are generally convincing and emotional. Direction by Perkins, who gave us that admirable, toe-tapping musical movie "Bran Nue Day" some years ago, is assured. Some of the scenes are quite gripping in their own right: the opening panoramic scene of the countryside around Corrigan (in reality, the town of Pemberton in south-west WA); the cricket match where Jeffrey the Vietnamese lad proves his batting worth to his racist, formerly harassing school colleagues (though I suspect his final cricket shot – one worthy of a BBL/T 20 match –maybe didn't exist in 1969!); and, the most chilling sequence in the whole film, the scene where Laura's mother learns the truth of what happened to her daughter.
Although the story ends with the mystery resolved, there are actually quite a few loose ends asking to be tied up. Although I understand the original novel ended more or less as the movie did, I was left asking "whatever happened about … ?" on a number of issues. If the novelist and the moviemakers so decided, I feel there is enough left over from this film to, maybe, warrant a "Jasper Jones 2".
Overall, "Jasper Jones" was an enjoyably spooky and mysterious Aussie movie. Well worth seeing.
PS: It must have one of the best collections of vintage Holden cars assembled in any recent film – car lovers, prepare to drool.
My star rating (out of five): * * * *