The bonus features on Jasper Jones make it clear that the original book, written by Craig Silvey, is some sort of contemporary Australian classic. Sadly, this film adaptation, directed by Rachel Perkins and written by Silvey and Shaun Grant, is a familiar bit of connect-the-dots that audiences will likely piece together long before the credits roll. Best case scenario, this is a prototypical example of a book's dense layers of character detail and prose dissolving into a single shot or a line of dialogue on screen. Between the two possible culprits, it's easier to assign that fault to Silvey and Grant's screenplay than Perkins, who captures a number of nice performances and authentic moments from her talented cast, even if it's not enough to make the movie feel fresh.
The best resource Perkins has at her disposal is a talented cast, who make the best out of small moments throughout the movie. The friendship between Charlie and Jeffrey is funny and believable, especially in a scene where Jeffrey enjoys a personal sporting triumph. In the same scene, there is some charming first-love chemistry between Miller and Rice, with Rice playing a number of moments throughout the film with interesting shades of impatience and angst. Miller fares better here than in the recent Wrinkle in Time, with the hesitant, frequently nervous Charlie fitting in more with his vibe than charming love interest. Collette, the film's top-billed star, is good in a number of threads that feel sort of irrelevant to the movie, about her crumbling relationship with her husband, but Weaving, the other major adult lead, is mostly wasted in a predictable role that he performs well but which is still essentially exposition.
The dull parts are the actual mystery, which never haunts the film quite like it probably ought to. Perhaps that's because the real culprit is obvious, even if there are some horrifying, unexpected revelations that are connected. If the film makes any real attempts at red herrings, they hardly register, with obvious dangling threads biding their time until they can be paid off in ways that make the plot feel sort of like a waste of time. Since Charlie is not really a detective of any kind, and Silvey intends the story to be as much about youth and the town around Charlie as it is about the mystery itself, the movie is left without much of a narrative engine. Charlie feels decentralized in a story the viewer has no choice but to follow him through, and the movie becomes tedious as a result. Side threads about racism and the town preserving its own quaint image drift to the fringes, feeling only partially explored.
Were Jasper Jones solely a thriller/mystery or solely a coming-of-age drama about dysfunction in a quaint town, either one of those movies might've been successful enough (even if they wouldn't be a proper adaptation of the novel). A book has more room to juggle tone and narrative that a movie does not, and even though the book's Wikipedia synopsis indicates Silvey and Grant carved away some of the story and reshaped it, the result is still unsatisfying, unsure of where to place the weight. It's a respectable failure, featuring strong performances and some keen direction, but a failure nonetheless, which never settles on what exactly it wants to convey.
The Video and Audio
Unfortunately, the customary Film Movement short film, Death For a Unicorn (15:02), is quite a slog. Co-directors Riccardo Bernasconi and Francesca Reverdito have crafted a fairy tale in rhyme, spoken aloud by Tilda Swinton, and the results are insufferably cutesy. The particular rhyme scheme chosen by the filmmakers is inescapably reminiscent of Dr. Seuss's The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (intentional or not, the results are distracting), and the short seems to exist mostly for the co-directors to create a sub-Michel Gondry twee fantasyland made mostly out of 2-dimensional cardboard cutouts. These stylistic tics (as well as casting a man to play a woman) add nothing to the story and get tiring the more the directors focus on them.
An original theatrical trailer for Jasper Jones is also included.