Jasper Jones has been called Australia's To Kill A Mockingbird in some quarters, and in some ways it does bear a passing resemblance to Haper Lee's classic tale of racism in the southern US back in the middle of the 20th century. It's also been compared to Stephen King's classic coming-of-age tale The Body (filmed by Rob Reiner as Stand By me), and again it does bear some similarities of that story about a bunch of boys heading into the woods to see a dead body. But where Jasper Jones bears a closer resemblance to the works of Mr King (and also those of filmmaker David Lynch) is in its overarching theme of small-town residents who all have something to hide.
Set among the karri forrests around the fictional small West Australian town of Corrigan (the real southern WA town of Pemberton filled in for the filming) in 1969, Jasper Jones is told from the viewpoint of nerdy 14-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), who is best mates with Jeffrey Lu (Kevin Long) – in a nod to Stand By Me, the film opens with the pair discussing the merits of various superheroes and arguing whether or not Batman can even be classified a superhero. But things soon move into Hardy Boys territory when town outsider Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath), a part-Aboriginal 16-year-old, comes to Charlie's bedroom one night ask asks him to come into the bush with him. There Jasper shows him the body of a teenage girl hanging from a tree. The girl is Laura Wishart, who Jasper had been secretly seeing, and he believes that she has been murdered and he is being set up to take the blame (she was hanged with his rope). The pair set out to get to the bottom of just what happened.
Helmed by indigenous director Rachel Perkins (best known for Bran Nue Dae and Mabo) and beautifully shot by Mark Wareham, who perfectly captures the look and feel of Australian rural life in the late 1960s along with the harsh beauty of the landscape, Jasper Jones is based on an acclaimed novel by WA writer Craig Silvey, and was previously adapted for the stage. (Silvey co-wrote the screenplay with Shaun Grant, who scripted 2011's Snowtown.) There's a lot going on – it's a murder mystery, a shameful look at racism in Australia, and an examination of the secrets and lies hidden away in a small town – and Perkins manages to juggle all these elements with skill. It could have been a much darker, nastier tale but she manages to keep it all fairly light and accessible. It deals with loss of innocence, adult responsibly and young love as Charlie learns things about his parents and others in the town, while a romance blossoms between him and Laura's younger sister, Eliza (the soon-to-be superstar Angourie Rice).
Miller is perfectly solid in the lead role, while McGrath feels a little under-used as the titular protagonist – much of his backstory is merely mentioned in passing or hinted at, and more time could possibly have been given to him. As Charlie's mum Ruth, Toni Collette is scarily spot-on as a frustrated housewife of that time, a time when paints would quite happily hit their children (yes folks, it really happened). And it's a small role, by Hugo Weaving is on top form as the local recluse Mad Jack Lionel, who Jasper believes was responsible for Laura's murder. But far and away the most valuable player here is Rice, who steals every scene she's in – this young lady has oodles of Charisma and presence, as well as got that special something that makes her shine on screen. She came to global attention as Ryan Gosling’s daughter in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys in 2016, and is also in Sophia Copolla's remake of The Beguiled. It will not be too long before Rice is an A-list Hollywood star.
Australia still struggles with issues of racial prejudice, and not only as far as the indigenous peoples are concerned – Jasper Jones also deals with racism against the Vietnamese Lu family living next door to Charlie; it takes place during the Vietnam war, and it was before Australia saw mass Asian immigration. Films such as this play an important role in discussing and coming to terms with problems such as racism, but Jasper Jones is also a quintessential Aussie tale of a gentler, more innocent time. Thanks to a fine script and a superb cast, Perkins manages to juggle several genres with confidence – coming-of-age drama, romance, murder mystery and social commentary – and delivers a film that is both moving and compelling.