Charles Bramesco


The New Boy – first-look review

Warwick Thornton’s spiritually-inclined Outback drama sees a nameless aboriginal boy face off against Cate Blanchett’s anxiety-prone nun.

Curiously muscular for a four-foot-something nine-year-old, his steely eyes poking out from under sun-bleached sandy tresses, newcomer Aswan Reid cuts a striking figure as a nameless Aboriginal child who may or may not be the earthly reincarnation of Jesus Christ in the latest film from Warwick Thornton.

He’s introduced physically dominating an outback rough-rider several times his age, an extraordinary feat that presents a fitting overture to a film that gazes upon him with a quavering awe that matches its credulous yet critical vantage on holiness. An untainted soul with the guilelessness of a child and the purifying power of a deity, he anchors a reverent, radiant passion play that only falters in its final minutes.

We’re in the thick of the World War Two, though at the Outback nunnery overseen by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett, giving a boost to the Australian film industry that gave her her start), they feel the fighting less than its attendant austerity. The kid referred to by the title phrase under the rationale that he can name himself once he sees fit — and develops a facility for the English language he declines in favour of pregnant glances — came to this remote outpost against his will as captured chattel, but there’s an edenic quality of mercy in their dutiful day-to-day. It’s been a year since the male supervisor Dom Peter passed away and took the barbaric corporal punishment practices with him, leaving Eileen and the kindly Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) to foster a gentler environment for the wayward youths entrusted to their care.

Our good boy possesses supernatural faith-healing abilities taking the shape of a spark that flits around the air like a glowing gnat, though the film complicates the white inclination to see indigenous peoples as supernatural conduits between the physical and metaphysical planes. (It would have to; Thornton hails from the Kaytetye population’s land in the beautifully barren Northern Territory, and lived a similar experience of forced monasticism and eventual rejection of Christianity.) His ability to absorb and withstand others’ pain places him closer to saintly than magical, an ambiguous variant of transubstantiation that befits a turbulent religious current.

The waving fields of amber wheat aren’t even the most overtly Malickian touch coming from a filmmaker who evidently regards Days of Heaven as scripture, its view of God’s will as equally splendorous and terrible reiterated in a massive wildfire set piece. The challenges posed to order and orthodoxy by the boy’s mere existence provoke a crisis of faith in Eileen, an arc that dishes up some hearty red meat for Blanchett, her placid demeanour covering a deeper damage perhaps connected to the leg bandages she’d rather not discuss.

Her shaken beliefs and her young ward’s mounting awareness of his extraordinary destiny put the film on a clear thematic path leading to literal and metaphorical iconoclasm, only to veer off course with a handful of inexplicable choices in the final act. A jarring musical cue out of joint with all that’s come before, a seemingly contradictory turn of the plot, and an abrupt ending put a ding in an otherwise self-assured, well-measured personal statement from an artist ready to bust out of the sidebars and into Competition.

With a stirring mix of righteous anger and abiding serenity, Thornton terraforms the Wild West of his home nation into a spiritually parched landscape. In his boldest move of all, he refuses the responsibility of nourishing its inhabitants, making his pint-sized onscreen avatar — in both the secular and sacred senses of the world — a saviour in spite of himself.

Published 20 May 2023

Tags: Australian cinema Cate Blanchett Terrence Malick

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