THE STORY – In the 1940s, during the dead of night, a 9-year-old Aboriginal orphan boy arrives at a remote monastery run by a renegade nun.
THE CAST – Cate Blanchett, Aswan Reid, Deborah Mailman & Wayne Blair
THE TEAM – Warwick Thornton (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
The newest film from director Warwick Thorton, “The New Boy,” stars legendary Cate Blanchett and introduces a new powerhouse of a child actor named Aswan Reid, the two of which carry the film. The film boasts some stunning technical aspects, such as cinematography by the director himself, and is nothing short of a unique take on the clashing of beliefs in 1940s Australia. The themes tackled throughout are brought to us through heavy symbolism and allegory, causing this one to be extremely thought-provoking, though perhaps missing a few marks by the end.
The film opens with great intensity- a ruthless tussle between an older man and a young Aboriginal boy in the middle of the desert. Sand flies, small legs wrap around a throat with an iron grip, but ultimately the boy is subdued. We soon find that this boy has been delivered in the night to the doorstep of an old monastery orphanage, and with a knock and a creak of a door tentatively opening, we are introduced to Sister Eileen (Blanchett). The young boy is initially terrified, taking immediate refuge under a table, but he soon becomes quite attached to the nun. With time, he grows quite close to her, and we witness him slowly find his footing with the other boys there. Soon though, we find he holds a unique ability, but with the delivery of a particular wooden crucifix to be kept safe from the war, things take a new turn. The boy’s fascination with the carving grows, and as his infatuation intensifies, the fog begins to lift on what’s truly happening.
The performances are worth noting, as the dynamics between the characters and their unique understandings of each other help drive the tale along. This could only be achieved successfully if the two titular characters held a believable relationship, and luckily, Blanchett and Reid are a lovely little pair. Reid is a curious boy of little words who explores his world with wide eyes and often shadows Sister Eileen, glued to her side. On the other hand, Eileen becomes an endearing mother figure for the boy. She seems to quietly favor him out of the bustling bunch of children under her wing, a responsibility she shares with the lovely “Sister Mum,” played by Deborah Mailman. Together the two tackle the chaos of bringing up the children, leading them in prayer, and introducing them to Christianity. Blanchett’s performance is authentic yet subtle, but she leaves the scene stealing to Reid, the true standout. So much emotion is conveyed through his expert expressions at such a young age, and he’s sure to have an incredible career ahead of him.
The themes and ideas at the core of “The New Boy” are very nuanced. Thorton relies more on symbolism and imagery to convey his points rather than spelling them out to an audience through dialogue or verbal explanation. This works for a portion of the film as the metaphorical aspects are decently straightforward, not too on the nose or drowning in subtlety. Still, as things ramp up, the meaning and plethora of strange events fog up the story and make the take-home message slightly messy instead of clearing things up. We are watching a boy lose his spark, his heritage, and his own culture as he is forced into Christianity, so much so that he loses himself and what makes him special. Some of the symbolic imagery portrays this main event quite beautifully, and it’s a very interesting take and idea, but the film becomes a bit oversaturated with analogy.
Visually, “The New Boy” looks absolutely gorgeous, showcasing the beauty of the quaint Australian outback. It’s often a feast for the eyes, from hay fields to bubbling creeks and sunsets that warmly bathe the rolling land. The way these scenes are shot and captured helps to create a very atmospheric experience that holds true throughout the entirety of the film. The score is also a wonderful addition and adds to the ambiance and setting, melding well with the story and complimenting the other aspects as well. Tonally, the film combines drama and wondrous mysticism with a sprinkle of humor that is a welcome addition.
Overall, the idea of using heavy symbolism to portray a young Aboriginal child falling victim to colonization and the process of stripping him of his heritage is fascinating. This is at the core of what makes “The New Boy” a spellbinding story, though that’s not to say it’s executed flawlessly. But with a unique premise, solid performances, and a lot of heart, its flaws surely don’t override the good that it holds. It’s an important and disheartening tale of a magical little boy losing himself to the process of indoctrination and is an integral part of history that’s always due for another reminder.