The New Boy (2023, dir. Warwick Thornton)

by | Mar 16, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 96 mins

UK Distributor: Signature Entertainment

UK Release Date: 15 March 2024

WHO’S IN THE NEW BOY?

Aswan Reid, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Shane McKenzie-Brady, Tyrique Brady, Laiken Beau Woolmington, Kailem Miller, Kyle Miller, Tyzailin Roderick, Tyler Rockman Spencer, Andrew Upton, Tyson Pawley

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Warwick Thornton (director, writer, cinematographer), Cate Blanchett, Lorenzo De Maio, Georgie Pym, Kath Shelper and Andrew Upton (producers), Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (composers), Nick Meyers (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1940s Australia, a young Aboriginal boy (Reid) arrives at a Christian monastery run by a renegade nun (Blanchett)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE NEW BOY?

The ethnic cleansing of Indigenous populations by their often-White Christian oppressors is a shameful recurrence throughout history, from the slaughter of Native Americans to as recently as the horrific genocide currently unfolding in Gaza, but in Australia – at least, in the 1940s – there was arguably a more sinister way of separating the Aboriginal peoples from their deep-rooted culture. Such methods are forefront in writer-director (and cinematographer) Warwick Thornton’s historical drama The New Boy, which explores exactly how the enforcement of Western faiths and customs from an early age would eventually rob them of their cultural identity and their connection to the land that their ancestors once claimed to be their own.

Most intriguingly, the film gets across its points through an unexpected turn into magical realist territory, which doesn’t always amount to a thoroughly complex narrative, or at least one that’s weighty enough to balance its heavy themes, but is no less interesting and gives it a strong sense of ambition.

Set in the 1940s, the film begins as a young, nameless Aboriginal boy (played by newcomer Aswan Reid) is captured and taken to a remote Christian monastery, which is run by a rather eccentric nun named Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett), who’s been running the place in secret after the head priest died a year prior. The young lad, nicknamed the “New Boy” by Eileen and the other boys under her watch, speaks no English, has little desire to remove his original customs in favour of the more accepted Christian ideals, and most peculiar of all appears to have the ability to generate little balls of light from the palm of his hand, which can heal whatever or whomever he wishes. Such a power is challenged as the New Boy becomes strangely fascinated with a newly arrived wooden statue of Jesus on the cross, causing Eileen to question whether her newest arrival is a sign from above, but more importantly causes a personal conflict for the impressionable young boy as he becomes more and more detached from his Aboriginal upbringing.

In a somewhat blatant piece of symbolism, Thornton presents the miraculous power that the New Boy possesses as the purity of his cultural roots, which as the film goes along and he is further indoctrinated into a life of Christ flickers more and more, until it reaches a point where it may no longer stay alight. What was at first a godly ability has, ironically, been tainted by the very words and wisdom of God, Jesus and his disciples, and the filmmaker presents this descent as a deeply sad occurrence that is erasing his own identity in real-time. The film is at its strongest when it is showing this, while the enigmatic and near-wordless central performance of Aswan Reid is captivating as it shows this character’s personal grapple with both his old and new lives without hardly uttering anything.

However, the narrative that forms around The New Boy can be aimless, to a point where a while will go by without many things actually happening. The film admirably takes its time in showing the young protagonist becoming accustomed to his new lifestyle, which involves regular church sermons and assisting his adoptive brothers with the local harvest, but there are many blank spaces within Thornton’s script that struggle to fill that time with substantial plotting. Sometimes, it can even be difficult for it to find a consistent tone, including one section that’s almost straight out of a sitcom where Cate Blanchett’s Sister Eileen must convince an unexpected arrival that the dead priest is not only still alive, but mentally ill. Blanchett’s performance as a whole, while no less impressive and committed than anything the actor has done prior, is in and of itself rather odd, as you can see this character and her wildly unorthodox ways being more at home in a more light-hearted comedy than this otherwise heavily themed drama about cultural erasure.

It is impressively shot, with Thornton also providing some luscious cinematography that spans across the empty Australian wastelands where the entirety of this story takes place, and an atmospheric musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis amplifies the fantastical elements as well as the moodier and more grounded moments. There are some truly exceptional filmmaking skills on display here, and the magical realist touch is a welcome one as the film, like The Green Mile before it, smartly utilises its light fantasy to get across a horrifying historical truth that is, rather sadly, becoming more and more relevant with every news story coming out of Gaza by the hour.

The script, though, perhaps just needed another rewrite to fill in some of the glaring gaps within the narrative, for there is an exceptional theme at the heart of The New Boy that is certainly touched upon, in often profound ways, but it isn’t explored as deeply as it absolutely could have been.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The New Boy is an intriguing historical drama that sheds light on a horrific period of cultural erasure within Australia’s Indigenous population that smartly employs a touch of magical realism to convey its heavy themes, though the script often feels too loose in places for it to achieve the full emotional effect.

Three out of five stars

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