The New Boy
After 'Samson & Delilah' and 'Sweet Country', Warwick Thornton makes another stunning musing on survival — this time starring Cate Blanchett and newcomer Aswan Reid.
July 05, 2023
Warwick Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis: name a better Australian quintet. The director of Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country, the two-time Oscar-winner and recent Tár tour de force, the local screen mainstay, and the Bad Seeds bandmates and seasoned film composers all combine not for the ultimate Aussie dinner party, but for The New Boy. None are debuting in their jobs. All are exceptional. They're each made better, however, by the luminous and entrancing Aswan Reid. As well as playing the titular part, the 11-year-old first-time actor lives it among such a wealth of acclaimed and experienced talent — and he's such a find in such excellent company, while saying little in words but everything in every other way, that Thornton's third fictional feature owes him as much of a debt as its applauded and awarded household names.
There's a spark to Reid from the moment that he's first spied grappling with outback law enforcement under blazing rays as Cave and Ellis' (This Much I Know to Be True) latest rousing score plays. His sun-bleached hair couldn't be more fitting, or symbolic, but it's the confident way in which he holds himself as New Boy, plus the determined look on his face, that sears. Wily and wiry, the feature's eponymous figure is toppled by a boomerang, then bagged up and transported to the remote Catholic orphanage doted on by Sister Eileen (Blanchett, Nightmare Alley) in the 1940s. The cop doing the escorting notes that the kid is a bolter, but the nun is just as fast in her kindness. She sees what Thornton wants his audience to see: a boy that beams with his presence and through his sense of self, even though he's been snatched up, taken from his Country and forced into a Christian institution against his will. Sister Eileen is as drawn to him as the movie, but — and not just due to the red wine she likes sipping and the subterfuge she's keeping up about the resident father's absence — she isn't as certain about what to do.
The path that any new arrival at the monastery is supposed to follow is preordained: uniforms, a dorm bed, porridge, helping in the fields, obedience and church. New Boy barely subscribes, donning only shorts, sleeping on the floor and cutting in front in the food line, which Sister Eileen permits. The abbey's two other adults, the nurturing Sister Mum (Mailman, Total Control) and farmhand George (Wayne Blair, Seriously Red), are welcoming yet know the reality that's facing all of the boys in their care, particularly the First Nations kids. In the priest's name, Sister Eileen might write letters to the government urging them not to send her charges away when they're considered old enough to work — the endgame to the state, especially with the Second World War impacting labour — but Sister Mum and George are lived proof that acquiescing and assimilating is the only outcome that will be accepted.
There's a spark to the new boy, too, and literally. He's meant to pray away his Indigenous spirituality in the name of dutiful conformity, and in favour of Christianity, but the faith and culture that's as old as Australia's Traditional Owners glows. He's curious, though, including about the ornate, life-sized wooden cross that's sent from France for safekeeping during the war. He wants to undo its nails, free Jesus from crucifixion and give it the property's snakes as gifts. As Thornton peppers in religious imagery, New Boy displays more in common with its carved figurine than Sister Eileen knows how to handle. This is a tale of survival and, while always its namesake's story first and foremost, it also sees two sides to it: the First Nations lad ripped away from all he knows, as well as the nun that's gone renegade within a system that sees her as lesser because she's a woman.
Writing and directing — as he did with Samson & Delilah, but not Sweet Country — Kaytetye man Thornton takes inspiration from his own experience as a child sent to a missionary boarding school ran by Spanish monks. In the process, he makes a moving and needfully blunt statement about the clash that's too often been enforced upon the country's First Peoples since colonisation. Indeed, simmering with anger but also hope, The New Boy is a clear, unshakeable rebuttal of the perennially ridiculous idea that only one faith, culture or way of life can exist. And, crucially, it feels as personal as Thornton's work gets; he isn't in front of the lens as he was with the also-remarkable The Beach, where he charted his own escape away from the incessant hustle and bustle of modern life, but the sensation that emanates from the screen is overwhelmingly the same.
Thornton works as his own cinematographer on The New Boy, another trademark touch — see also: anthology film The Darkside, documentary We Don't Need a Map, plus the episodic Mystery Road and Firebite — which allows him to load every inch of every immaculate frame with deep and blistering emotion. There's no such thing as a passive image anywhere in any film by any director, but Thornton's beautifully shot movies ensure that his viewers can't evade the landscape that's been forever changed by white settlement. Here, he roves over the plains outside of South Australia's Burra, where every structure for the feature was erected from scratch, and where shimmering yellow fields of wheat grow atop the ochre earth that's been inhabited by Indigenous Australians for thousands of years. He sees how the terrain has been reshaped, but never forgets who was there first. With his oh-so-perceptive eye, Thornton's visuals stunningly do what New Boy does: expresses everything with little speaking necessary.
In her first on-screen role in a solely Australian film since 2013's The Turning, Blanchett talks, of course. Where much of the picture around her bubbles with loaded patience, and Reid's innate naturalism, The New Boy's biggest star is the storm amid the deceiving calm. Consumed by her struggles with her own faith while tasked with instilling it into her charges, and also now challenged by the new boy that defies her sense of logic, Sister Eileen rarely stops moving, fretting, surveying, asserting, preaching and confessing — and Blanchett is magnetic to behold. That said, it's a performance with a needed counterbalance. Without Reid's serenity, Blanchett might've come on too strong. Without Reid, too, the fact that the eponymous character's quest to endure is tinged with hard-won optimism amid its palpable fury mightn't have shone through. No matter what happens, or how rarely he's accepted for who he is, New Boy always persists.
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