There’s a kinetic strength to star-in-the-making Aswan Reid’s screen presence as we first glimpse his unnamed ‘new boy’ attempting to throttle the life out of a policeman much bigger than himself. A scrapper with a mess of sun-bleached hair, he seems to channel the vast majesty of the mountainous desert as they tussle in the dust.
In The New Boy, filmmaker Warwick Thornton’s latest reckoning with Australia’s violent
history, this is a fight the boy can’t win. Forcibly knocked out by a boomerang in a cracking
shot that feels like it’s going to rip through the screen, he’s dragged in a sack to a ramshackle orphanage ruled over by Cate Blanchett’s ocker nun, Sister Eileen, sometime during World War II. Covering up the death of the priest who should be in charge, she’s a little too fond of communion wine and fervent prayer. Wreaking a matriarchal variant of paternalism no less insidious for its well-meaning façade, she hopes to scrub out the young Aboriginal man’s spiritual connection to the land and imprint the Catholic faith on him, all blood and thorns.
Reid conveys great interior strength as the new boy plays with a mysterious fire dancing around his fingertips under his steel-framed bed in a dormitory full of similarly lost (or stolen) boys. With a child’s wisdom, he can’t quite figure out why anyone would leave the nails dug deep into the wooden wounds of Jesus on the chapel’s cross.
Wayne Blair’s groundskeeper George, also a First Nations man, is unnerved by the new boy clinging fiercely to the ways he has long-since abandoned. Watching the lad shadow box in the stables and hearing a snatch of Indigenous language, George mutters, ‘You’re very far
from home.’ A truth twice over.
There’s a kinetic strength to star-in-the-making Aswan Reid’s presence
There’s sadness, too, in the excellent Deborah Mailman’s Sister Mum and her unspoken grief, frozen in the silver of a framed photograph by her bed.
Filmed by Thornton (who serves as cinematographer too) like a sunbeam through honey, The New Boy is steeped in the majesty of nature. One perfect shot dwarfs Sister Eileen and the boy in a forced perspective in which a workhorse appears even more gigantic. And while the religious symbolism of lightning-struck bushfires and coiling grass snakes is overt, it works within this tale of colonial erasure. The haunting pace rocks the viewer into a meditative
state, as does a lulling score by Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and Nick Cave. When two paths are
presented in the closing moments, you might find yourself willing there was another way for
the future of this country.
In Australian cinemas Jul 6.