One night Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller), a fourteen year old boy living in a small rural town in Western Australia in 1969, is awoken by Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), the town's mixed-race outcast. He begs Charlie for help. Jasper leads Charlie to a private glade in the bush where to his horror they find the body of local girl Laura Wishart hanging from a tree. Scrawled on that same tree are the words: "I'm sorry." Jasper, who was in love with Laura, insists he had nothing to do her death. He convinces Charlie to help lay Laura to rest at the bottom of the lake. The next morning, while police and townsfolk scour the countryside in search of Laura and concerned parents Ruth (Toni Colette) and Pete Bucktin (Myles Pollard) try to keep their son indoors, Charlie grapples with his guilty secret. Compounding Charlie's anxiety are his encounters with Laura's younger sister Eliza (Angourie Rice) who seems to harbour romantic feelings for him. Eventually with Jasper's safety and Eliza's feelings weighing heavily, Charlie takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of Laura's death.
Likened to an Australian To Kill a Mockingbird this admirably ambitious coming of age drama is adapted from Craig Silvey's award-winning novel of the same name. As in the Harper Lee classic, Jasper Jones uses a small town crime where a local misfit is unjustly pegged the guilty culprit as a means of exploring a nation's lamentable legacy of bigotry and hatred. All viewed through the eyes of a young innocent. The subject matter certainly befits the track record of director Rachel Perkins whose past works, including drama Radiance (1998) and musicals One Night the Moon (2001) and Bran Nue Dae (2010), all dealt with various aspects of Aboriginal culture. Yet despite an intriguing personality and back-story Jasper himself is strangely marginalized throughout this particular story. The mystery is certainly compelling and the cast uniformly excellent, from seasoned Aussie scene-stealers Toni Colette and Hugo Weaving (near-unrecognizable as the town's resident creepy old man) to gifted rising stars Levi Miller and Angourie Rice, both building on the promise of past roles. However, in adapting Silvey's multi-layered narrative for the screen Perkins and screenwriter Shaun Grant struggle to maintain a singular focus.
Along with touching on racism directed at the Aboriginal community, Jasper Jones tackles the cultural and moral conservatism of late Sixties rural Australia, anti-Asian bigotry spurred by the Vietnam war, sexual abuse, social constraints placed on women, the disintegration of a family, hypocrisy among the powers that be and young love. On top of that there is a subplot concerning Charlie's wisecracking pal Jeffrey (Kevin Long) touching on how sport can have a positive effect on efforts to overcome prejudice. All of which probably work magnificently in the novel but in the film adaptation pass by too quickly. Despite complex themes and emotive performances throughout Jasper Jones has a hard time maintaining a near-impossible juggling act. Perkins' scatter-gun approach covers a lot of bases without giving them the weight they deserve. Ultimately the film's core theme springs from a charming ongoing debate about comic book superheroes arguing that true courage involves overcoming fear to do the right thing. Which although heartening, given the sheer range of subject matter crammed into one narrative, is also a somewhat facile reduction of its scope.