The spark of life that gave Warwick Thornton what is now “The New Boy” took 18 years to flash and then fully shine. The Australian director looked to his childhood raised by monks to find the spiritual fairy tale that now manifests itself through the film’s Aboriginal child of the same name in a radical and poetic portrayal of stifled faith and the threat of religious monopoly.
Thornton’s cinema is one of massive orchestral music and vast landscapes that envelop us and invite us in, even if you feel like you don’t know where you’re going or shouldn’t be allowed to look around. It’s the kind of culturally specific cinema that somehow immediately acquires universality in that ambition to connect, understand empathy and sensitivity to hear these conflicts and this bright spark of a guy talking about faith struggles whichever way you are. grown up.
He’s simply known as the New Boy, an unnamed Aboriginal boy (an explosive twist on the almost completely silent but seductive Aswan Reid) taken in by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) at her fiercely protective remote monastery. It is 1940s Australia in the midst of World War II and the New Boy is captured by a mounted police patrol and dumped with his sister Eileen. But she does and she will take care of him: his faith is religious but also transcendent when it comes to her small group of boys. She works with the Church, but ultimately For the ones he cares for.
This includes two Aboriginal staff members, George (Wayne Blair) and Sister Mum (prolific Australian TV actress and emotional extraordinaire Deborah Mailman) who, with Sister Eileen, nurture the next generation by reconciling different schools of thought in the name of survival. But Thornton often shoots the film with great beauty (acting as cinematographer, writer and director, alongside Jules Wurm as camera operator), both in the expansive views of wild bush in the wind and in the fragility of a fly landing. eyelid of Sister Eileen as she wakes up from a nap. The world is hard, demanding, but there is poetry in the hope that things can still grow and become beautiful.
It doesn’t hurt to have Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on scoring duties, arguably the best possible pair to work with this remote out-of-reality way of life, engaging with the natural world, its barren fields and pouring sun, while still injecting immense life and humanity – and therefore hope – in all that breathes. And that goes for a lot more than you’d initially expect.
Everything changes for the New Boy – and his sister Eileen – when a life-size sculpture of Christ on the cross arrives. Everyone knows what that means, but the New Boy doesn’t. He sees things others don’t, and Reid’s angelic innocence is hypnotic to follow. He finally gets to say two words after spending some time working his way through these things that everyone seems to believe in: “Slut” and “Amen.” But words don’t matter, the spark of him does. Thornton injects a sense of childlike wonder with literal glimmers of magical realism that creeps its way through this harsh and forbidding environment. Because when you’re a kid, in a bold new world, that’s all you have.
The New Boy sees things in Christ that only he can see. There is movement: in his chest, in his sighing eyebrows, in the droplets of blood that splash on the floor that no one else can feel. It’s like nothing Sister Eileen has ever experienced, pushing Blanchett’s own performance to extremes that would make the likes of Lydia Tár cringe. There is deep emotion and vulnerability in Blanchett’s work, with her performance contrasting the calm, comfortable otherness of the New Boy with an almost overbearing dedication to caring.
What Thornton is committing to, an embrace of generosity, of humanity that can change what faith and religion mean, is often moving. But in ways that many cynics of the world we live in have long missed — that spark touches only those who still let it in. Reid plays the New Boy difference, almost beyond human, with surprising subtlety and restraint for a performer so raw essential to capture that primal sense of survival at all costs). There is conflict in everything, in the clash of worlds and the struggle for a world to make sense believe in, but somehow also miraculous poetry and optimism.
But then whatever seems to be leading us down a path changes and the spark is extinguished. And even then, all is not lost (as it ever could be, with Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” just entering the show). The New Boy may have entered the community a little, he’s changed his ways just a little, but Sister Eileen’s community is completely different from what she once was. Christianity must make room for Aboriginal spirituality, and for all other schools of thought in the world we live in, full of new kids. The fact that Thornton has found a language to say it aloud and find the magic in it, may in itself be a minor miracle.
“The New Boy” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.