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Jasper Jones

Film Movement // Unrated // April 10, 2018
List Price: $17.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 15, 2018 | E-mail the Author
Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is perplexed when Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath) knocks at his window in the middle of the night demanding his help. Although Jasper is a classmate and a local, Charlie and Jasper have never spoken to one another, and he is especially shocked when Jasper leads him to the body of Laura Wishart, the older daughter of the town councilor, hung from a tree. Jasper, who is both an Aboriginal and Laura's girlfriend, correctly assumes the police will look at him as the primary suspect. Jasper suspects the real killer is Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), a local recluse who is rumored to have murdered a woman years ago. Charlie reluctantly agrees to help Jasper try and catch the killer, a promise that will leave him juggling the mystery, racist fallout from the ongoing Vietnam War trickling toward his best friend Jeffrey (Kevin Long) and his family, the affections of Laura's younger sister Eliza (Angourie Rice), and the conflict brewing between Charlie's parents Ruth (Toni Collette) and Wes (Dan Wylie).

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.

Jasper Jones is the kind of dramatic ensemble that nobody seems to know how to summarize in a piece of key art, and the DVD cover Film Movement went with is no different, positioning a bunch of famous heads into a collage, with a key location as a barely-there backdrop. The one-disc release comes in a transparent Amaray case so that notes from Film Movement and the director can be seen on the inside on the reverse of the sleeve, and there is a booklet advertising other Film Movement releases.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, Jasper Jones gets a perfectly adequate presentation on home video. Much of the movie takes place at night and these scenes look okay, if a touch on the murky side, although I did not notice any overly serious issues with banding or artifacts. Daytime scenes look better, with accurate-looking colors and a reasonable amount of fine detail. The film is dialogue-driven and not much of a surround picture, although there are some occasional bits of score and intensity that fill the soundscape as expected. English subtitles and a Dolby Digital 2.0 track are also included.

The Extras
This is one of the occasional Film Movement releases with additional extras that pertain to the film itself. In this case, there are Interviews with Toni Collette (4:34), Hugo Weaving (4:36), Levi Miller (5:09), Angourie Rice (4:12), and director Rachel Perkins (13:20). These are not too dry and relatively trimmed down to the good bits, although as one may guess just by looking at the running times, the clip with Perkins is the most informative.

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.

Megafans of Toni Collette or the source novel may want to rent Jasper Jones out of curiosity, but that's about the limit to the audience for this unfocused adaptation.

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