Last week, at a screening of Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy, Nashen Moodley, the director of the Sydney Film Festival, recalled how “exhilarated” he was by Thornton’s debut feature, Samson & Delilah (2009). That film was widely praised, frequently spoken of as a landmark in local cinema, but it’s hard to believe it would leave anyone with a feeling of exhilaration. In its uncompromising portrait of Indigenous reality, Samson & Delilah, for all its qualities, was a profoundly depressing experience.
One would have to be a sadist to be exhilarated by this bleak romance, but let’s assume Moodley was merely being excessive in his appreciation.
In the years that followed, Thornton has risen to a position of eminence in Australian filmmaking and contemporary art circles. His new feature was a logical choice to launch this year’s SFF, where it received the inevitable standing ovation. I attended a second screening with the director on hand to address the audience.
I used to think that among Australian creative types, Brett Whiteley had the most elliptical way of speaking. Later on, it seemed Baz Luhrmann might be a serious contender for the title, but Warwick Thornton is gaining ground on both of them.
Thornton has created a persona that is so careless it’s completely theatrical. Long lank hair and straggly beard, dressed like he’s just come from a campsite, speaking in a stream of expletives that showed a casual disrespect for his audience’s bourgeois sensibilities – it was quite a performance. At times he sounded like a garrulous drunk button-holing a victim at the bar.
He told us how hard it was to make the film, said he didn’t know what he was doing, cracked derisive jokes at the movie’s expense, and pronounced that it was all about “survival”. This served to flatten out the complexities of the story and burden it with a political cliché. The audience seemed to lap it up, but there’s a dreadful cynicism in this blend of self-deprecating humour and aggressive blarney. Thornton is trading on the exaggerated good will we bring to all things Indigenous to push the boundaries of acceptabilty.
When it comes to the movie itself, we are presented with a very strange beast. It’s the story of a nine-year-old Aboriginal boy (Aswan Reid) whom we meet grappling with a policeman in the desert. The little wild man has the best of the contest until he is captured by an Aboriginal tracker and sent in a chaff bag to a remote orphanage, run by a couple of nuns, Sister Eileen and Sister Mum, played by Cate Blanchett and Deborah Mailman respectively. There is also a jack-of-all-trades named George, played by Wayne Blair.
It soon becomes apparent the child has supernatural powers. He is smaller but much stronger than the other boys, and they learn to give him a wide berth. He sleeps under his bunk, where he conjures up dancing sparks with his fingertips. He has the ability to cure snake bite, and other mysterious attributes, although the only English word he has learned is “Amen”. He is a born traditional healer – a ngangkari – with a dash of Peter Pan and Marvel comics.
I was entranced by The New Boy for the first hour – by its spare and economical narrative, and its striking images of the landscape. Thornton’s writing is clunky and episodic, but this need not detract from a film that is essentially non-naturalistic. As the story progresses it grows steadily more confused, brimming with Catholic symbolism that becomes tiresome and pretentious. We’re left wondering if our young hero is being irredeemably warped by Catholicism, or whether he is exposing its flaws and hypocrisies. The nuns are equally ambiguous, being kind-hearted and all-too-human in their failings. Are they supposed to be agents of an oppressive ideology?
One doubts that Thornton has any clear position on these questions. He has thrown all the elements of the story into a stew and given it a vigorous stir but takes no responsibility for what appears on our plates. The strangeness of a Bunuel gives way to the self-indulgence of a Ken Russell as the movie slides out of the director’s control. It’s simply not sufficient to say it’s all about survival. Auschwitz was about survival. This fantasy orphanage is a loosely run place that allows our hero to wander around freely and opt out of chores imposed on the other boys.
You’re going to hear a lot of gushing praise of The New Boy, but it’s a seriously flawed production in which Thornton can’t seem to make up his mind about what he is trying to do. Cate Blanchett strives to inject a bit of character and humour into her role, as do Mailman and Blair, but the relationships between characters are sketchily drawn, and the forward thrust of the narrative gets bogged down in a quagmire of symbolism. There are ‘themes’ such as the influence of colonialism and religion, that are signposted but never explored. It could be argued that Thornton is virtually in love with Catholicism. The film gets a little extra drama by virtue of a score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, but no amount of music could fill all the holes in this tale.
I’ve had little opportunity to attend this year’s festival, so it would be presumptuous of me to offer any assessments, beyond the simple recommendation to go along and see as much as you can! The Sydney Film Festival is one of this city’s great events, and I’d be there every day if my schedule permitted.
One trend is the growing number of Indigenous-themed films, of which The New Boy is a prominent example. There’s an interesting comparison with another film – Gaga, by Taiwanese Indigenous director, Laha Mebow, who turned up at the screening in full tribal regalia. In contrast to the high theatricality of Thornton’s movie, Mebow chose to tell a simple local story, and tell it well. We follow the fortunes of a family in the Atayal community, as one hapless male runs for mayor, his daughter copes with an unwanted pregnancy, and numerous pigs get slaughtered.
It’s an unadulterated lens on peasant life – not merely in Taiwan, but almost any place in which small, close-knit communities try to balance cultural traditions with the changing circumstances of their existence. There is no attempt to make grand pronouncements, we simply absorb the story and draw our conclusons about the family, the problems they face (often of their own making), and how they might come through in the end. All praise to those directors who aim to get the basics right before they take on God and the universe with predictable results.
The New Boy
Written & directed by Warwick Thornton
Starring: Aswan Reid, Cate Blanchett, Deborah Mailman, Wayne Blair, Tyrique Brady, Kyle Miller, Shane Brady, Tyzailin Roderick, Tyler Spencer, Laiken Woolmington, Kailem Miller
USA/Australia, M, 116 mins
In cinemas from 6 July
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 June, 2023