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“Explores the Erosion of Native Identity” – The New Boy (Film Review)

3 min read

The New Boy a film co-produced and starring weaves in elements of its writer and director, Warwick Thornton's childhood experience of growing up in a Christian boarding school. 

In a dark chapter of 20th-century history, the government rolled out a project to separate indigenous children from their parents and their culture in an effort to “breed them white”, also referred to as the children of the “Stolen Generations”. This is the background setting of The New Boy, set in 1940s Australia in the middle of World War II. A solitary Indigenous boy (Aswan Reid) is rounded up by a police offer and dropped off at a remote monastery orphanage run by head nun, Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett). Sister Eileen is fastidious in her duties to ensure the monastery is not the subject of too much Church oversight and to make good on its expected contribution to the war efforts.  

However, her delicately balanced world is disrupted by the new arrival, unnamed and known only as “the new boy”. He has lived a nomadic Indigenous life up until now and he seems to wield special powers which he can use to heal living organisms. He represents an alternative way of living and believing, that is misaligned with the dogmatic and orderly confines of the Christian monastery. The film explores the erosion of native identity and highlights the madness of insisting that only one faith can prevail. As Thornton describes, “If it is possible for one faith to exist, then it's possible for all faiths to exist”. 

The New Boy's sweeping shots of the golden hues of the barren Outback are a welcome addition to the light and dark symbolism throughout, helping to demonstrate the dichotomy between Indigenous and Western spirituality. Further, the score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis adds depth to the stripped-back, bare setting. 

Sadly, the narrative momentum becomes a little stilted in the second part of the film. Increasingly, you are unable to decipher Sister Eileen —one second she believes the new boy and his powers are a gift from God and the next second, his apparent divinity is ignored and he needs to be assimilated leaving you wondering how her beliefs stack up. Blanchett clearly intends to play a rather idiosyncratic and eccentric nun but if we traded some of that effort for a more cohesively written and portrayed character,  then we may have had a tighter second half, seeing as so much is centred around her and Reid. 

Notably, Reid who hails from the Warakurna and Kiwirrkurra Aboriginal communities, is a great little talent in his first acting role — suitably confident and enigmatic as the new boy.  Support roles from Deborah Mailman playing Sister Mum and Wayne Blair playing the monastery's handyman George, both serve this minimalist film well too but their roles are tainted by the same narrative flaw affecting Blanchett's role, albeit to a lesser extent.

There is much to love about The New Boy, including its effective use of magical realism which is flourished with tidbits of CGI here and there. Thornton tells a story that speaks to live issues concerning Indigenous Australian rights today. This is certainly a favourable addition to his catalogue as well as Indigenous Australian cinema as a whole.

Signature Entertainment presents The New Boy only in cinemas 15 March