Jasper Jones , an adaptation of the novel by Craig Silvey, is a haunting mystery and coming-of-age story set in a small Australian town during the 60s. Fourteen-year-old, bookish boy Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is woken one night by town outcast Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath) who leads him to the hanging body of a young girl, Laura Wishart. Jasper, who as an Aboriginal Australian is treated with suspicion by the town (and especially by the local police) is convinced that he will be blamed, and Charlie, who is equally convinced that Jasper is innocent, must help him to hide the body and discover Laura’s real killer.
Mockingbird: With its themes of racism and prejudice in small town Australia, Jasper Jones the novel drew comparisons with the much-loved American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, and the film does not draw away from these themes. It’s not just a simple who-done-it mystery that relies too heavily on generic functions and scare tactics, it speaks to the dark underside of small town life and all the variations of prejudice within. Each of the main characters are outsiders, in search of escape. Jasper is mistrusted and mistreated, Charlie holds himself at a distance from everyone else, Laura Wishart’s sister Eliza (Angourie Rice) is a sad young girl hiding something dark, Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey Lu is part of the only Asian family in town during the Vietnam war, and as such is a victim of blame and hatred. Charlie’s mother (Toni Collette) is desperate to escape the constraints of small town life, and Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving) is the recluse who lives on the hill, with a horrible mythology built around his character. It’s interesting to see these characters interact with each other and within their shared environment. Jasper Jones is not a mystery for the sake of mystery, it’s larger than that and it makes you think and feel more.
It gets better: Admittedly, in the beginning, the film feels slightly stilted. While Jasper leads Charlie to Laura’s body there’s an awkward voiceover of Charlie’s thoughts. It does have a purpose; Charlie admits in this voiceover that he knows nothing about Jasper, except for what the judgment of the town has told him, setting up the themes that run throughout the film, but it’s just off-putting. The language and tone of it feel too pointed, and this theme could have been introduced more easily and more subtly through later dialogue between both characters. There are other moments during the film where some of the performances of the young actors feel stilted as well. But, overall, the actors are very talented, the mystery intriguing and the characters well-developed and interesting. The voiceover does not make a reappearance, and you’ll soon feel too lost in the narrative to mind that awkward beginning. Jasper Jones will keep you guessing and make you think, and it’s ending is sure to surprise and upset.
Jasper Jones gets off to a shaky start but soon picks up its game. It’s an intriguing murder mystery that in the end is about so much more than the mystery.