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By Sarah Ward
March 02, 2017
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By Sarah Ward
March 02, 2017
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"Would you rather wear a hat made of spiders, or have penises for fingers?" It's not just an intriguing question. It's also one of the most memorable lines in modern Australian literature, as anyone who has read Jasper Jones will no doubt agree. Now, thanks to the film adaptation of the best-selling Aussie novel, it's one of the most interesting pieces of dialogue uttered on screen too. That said, pondering such an obviously important topic isn't the only highlight of the beloved book or its new big screen version. For the record though, author Craig Silvey — who wrote the shooting script for movie as well — would choose the first option.

Contemplating arachnophobia versus added appendages is one of the lighter moments in a film that starts with a dead teenager, follows the efforts of an outsider to clear his name, and dives into the murky waters of discrimination in a small rural town. At the same time, the seemingly silly question provides an excellent example of exactly the kind of movie that Jasper Jones is. When you're 14 years old, life is filled with mysteries and surprises, both humorous and scary. One moment you're having a laugh with your friend. In the next, you're coming to terms with tragedy, prejudices and the fraught nature of race relations in Australia.

After the eponymous Jasper Jones (Aaron McGrath) comes knocking on his bedroom window one summer evening, Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) experiences both. By day, he pals around with his best friend (Kevin Long) talking about superheroes and exaggerated dilemmas. By night, he helps Jasper cope with the suspicious death of his girlfriend, for which Jasper fears he will be blamed. That Charlie has a crush on the dearly departed girl's sister (Angourie Rice) complicates matters. That the mixed-race Jasper is viewed with suspicion by most folks in the fictional Western Australian town of Corrigan does too.

Australian filmmakers have been keen on coming-of-age tales lately, with Paper Planes and Red Dog: True Blue (which also starred Miller) both gracing cinema screens over the past few years. Still, there's always room for a smart, thoughtful and engaging take on a well-worn premise, and Bran Nue Day director Rachel Perkins delivers just that. The book has earned comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird, while Perkins has cited Stand By Me as an influence — and blending the two together perfectly sums up Jasper Jones' charms.

Of course, a great text and a fine director are only part of the equation. Jasper Jones wins big on both fronts, but it also benefits from a stellar cast. There's a reason that Miller keeps getting work, and if the gifted Rice seems familiar, that's because she stole the show opposite Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe in last year's The Nice Guys. The pair, along with the soulful McGrath and the amusing Long, offer an impressive snapshot into the future of Australian acting talent, which is no easy feat given some of the veterans they're playing against. Toni Collette pops up as Charlie's unhappy mum, and it just wouldn't be a local film without Hugo Weaving doing wearied and grizzled like only he can.

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