A pivotal point in the Australian drama “Jasper Jones” arrives when Toni Collette’s eyes become beach balls and words of frustration fly as her character, Ruth Bucktin, rips into her husband for going easy on their son after he’s been caught having snuck out of the house at a troubling, potentially dangerous time. If you’ve seen “Hereditary” – which otherwise has no parallels with “Jasper Jones” – you might be reminded of Collette’s now-beloved monologue of fury in that particular movie, and her outburst serves a similar purpose here: Revealing surprising considerations of theme in what has largely been a genre movie up to this point, and in the form of cross-generational guilt that doesn’t spare fathers, sons or mothers.
Propelled by the delicate storytelling maneuvers of Australian director Rachel Perkins and a tactile awareness of the genre confines it’s operating inside of, “Jasper Jones” is a coming-of-age story Trojan Horse’d in a murder mystery and towed by explorations of ‘60s-era paranoia exacerbated by underlying racial tensions. That is to say, there’s enough material in these 100ish minutes to fill a hearty season of TV—ironically enough, the televisionscape is where Perkins has spent most of her career. And it’s attractive to think some of the tangential characters of “Jasper Jones” would benefit from the extra attention.
And yet, Perkins’s fourth movie is a feisty, ultimately successful feature that ends up being unexpectedly tender and considerate in its handling of themes that are much more deep-bodied than the young cast or whimsical opening moments (the movie begins with a debate about which superhero is supreme) would suggest. “Jasper Jones” has the feeling of a rugged classic, of a time-worn story you might find in the attic before shaking off the cobwebs. What’s better is that Perkins uses that assumption to her advantage; when young Charlie Bucktin dons oversized glasses, he looks like an honorary Hardy Boy.
A local girl in the small town of Corrigan has gone missing, and the response is promptly organized community meetings and curfews. But the young and unassuming Charlie (Levi Miller) knows something the Corrigan authorities don’t, having already been roped into the mystery after the mysterious Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath) leads him to where Laura Wishart has been hung. Insisting that he just happened on the scene, Jasper enlists Charlie’s help to find the killer, lest the police target the young Black boy as a suspect. Even if we’re to believe Jasper, we wonder: Does his interest stop at looking after himself, or did he mean to meet Laura here earlier in the night?
Worry not: This erudite, malleable movie – co-written by Shaun Grant and Craig Silvey, adapting his own novel – will answer that question, and sneak several more into the fray before it’s all said and done. “Jasper Jones” is constantly tugging on new narrative threads, confidently weaving friendships and confrontations and revelations and consequences with a headstrong spirit that justifies its mature candor. It’s also a marvelously crafted work in the technical sense, and this can’t go understated; its often the music and editing work here that keeps the mystery from getting morbidly heavy-handed or a scene of budding infatuation from crossing into roll-your-eyes awkwardness.
What makes Perkins’s drama a success is the deep-seeded vulnerability fueling every character choice and the emotional skidmarks left in their wake; a tangible sense of never quite having total control that “Jasper Jones” doesn’t shield its younger characters from feeling. The story becomes less one about finding a murderer and more about blind judgement, parental sin and waning youthful innocence—Perkins is interested in what happens when what we surmise about our families and communities turns out to ring false, and the best thing I can say about what the Aussie accomplishes here is that she often channels Stephen King in her contemplations.
Again—it’s a lot for a two-hour movie, even one that fully wraps the viewer up in its mysteries. And “Jasper Jones” certainly represents the dark, boarded-up house at the end of the block compared to the white-picket-fenced comforts that are Disney’s live-action remakes or, say, “Detective Pikachu.” (It may go beyond coincidence that the kids in Perkins’s movie eerily resemble a B-team to the youngsters of Andy Muschietti’s recent “It” films.)
But if there’s an aspect of “Jasper Jones” that falls by the wayside as it scurries along, it’s the subtext of racially charged aggravation, which is either totally subdued or handled by way of clumsy cliché. When Jasper is briefly arrested on no evidence, it’s a minor tangent that should feel major not only because the death of Ahmaud Arbery is making headlines in our world, but because the movie sets itself up early on to comment on racial injustice in its own. And yet, the development proves inessential to a story that shows itself to be more invested in the sins of our elders than the sins of yestercentury – and modern – social attitudes.
Still, I have to credit Perkins and “Jasper Jones” for not committing that mortal sin that so many whippersnappers-poking-around movies these days are guilty of: Overindulging itself. This is a movie that simmers with understanding more than it pumps its fists into the air; entire worldviews shift as Charlie, Jasper and Co. grow up a little earlier than we might wish for them to. Are the final minutes a tad treacle? Sure. But at the same time, “Jasper Jones” clenches its knuckles.
"Jasper Jones" is not rated. Perhaps a bit on the dark side for the tweens in the family. It's available to stream on Film Movement Plus Friday, as well as on other digital platforms.
Starring: Levi Miller, Kevin Long, Toni Collette, Aaron L. McGrath
Directed by Rachel Perkins