Grade: B
Entire family: No
2017, 105 min., Color
Film Movement
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence, language, and adult situations)
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Bonus features: B (includes short film “Death for a Unicorn”)
Amazon link

A reviewer for The Guardian called Jasper Jones “Australia’s Stand by Me,” but that doesn’t strike me as a very apt comparison. Yes, a dead body of a teen is central to the narrative, and a couple of young friends argue the merits of one superhero over another, but that’s the extent of the similarities.

Jasper Jones isn’t your typical coming-of-age story, either. There’s not much of a sexual awakening in 14-year-old Charlie Buctin (Levi Miller), and there’s less sleuthing in this dead-body mystery than one usually finds in a story of this type.

So what’s here? A pretty engaging tale set in conservative Western Australia that has plenty of small-town tropes that viewers who live in ultra-small-town America will recognize. Everybody knows everybody, and there are outcasts, bad reputations, rumors, all-community events, and a law officer who is more one of them than an authority figure far removed. There’s also a polite reluctance to shake up the community, though the Vietnam War is responsible for a racist backlash against the only Asians who live in this tiny town. But it all feels quite believable and engaging . . . once you get past an abrupt opening.

Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), an older mixed-race teen, rousts young Charlie in the middle of the night, breathless and in need of help. Follow me, he says, and though there’s nothing to lead us to believe that these two are good friends, Charlie does just that. Jasper takes him to “his place,” where on a tree near the house hangs the body of his girlfriend, an older teenage girl named Laura. Who did this? Was it suicide? Murder? In a panic and feeling the weight of being this society’s outcast, Jasper decides that the local law enforcement officer will look at the physical details and conclude that he was to blame. The only logical thing to do? Hide the body until the two boys can figure out what really happened. That’s the set-up, and the rest of this film by director Rachel Perkins focuses on young Charlie and an investigation that never takes him outside his own community.

Toni Collette is the big name in the all-Australian cast, and she nails her role as Charlie’s mom and a woman who, like at least one other person in in the story, needs more stimulation than their little town can provide. Her performance and her own situation, coupled with that of Eliza Wishart (Angourie Rice), the younger sister of the dead girl, offer strong enough side plots that they lend a richness to what could have been an overly simple film.

Based on an award-winning novel by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones feels as if it has more in common with Stranger Things than Stand by Me, because once this tragedy happens the parents react with fear that it could happen to their child(ren), and a boy tries to help a sibling of the victim to find out what really happened.

Though there’s a prime suspect—Mad Jack Lionel (Hugo Weaving), an old recluse with a bad reputation—what’s missing in this story is an all-out menacing villain. You’d think that would be a fatal flaw, but somehow the characters and their situations carry as much weight as the whodunit dramatic question. It’s an interesting slice-of-life story that involves not just the children in this town but the adults in town as well—Charlie’s father (Dan Wyllie) and the local lawman (Sam Longley) included. If you want to watch a film that’s totally off the radar, Jasper Jones will hold your family’s attention. It’s also available on Blu-ray.

Language: The usual mild expletives
Sex: Talk of implied sexual molestation and one mild, nothing-shown, scene of adultery
Violence: A girl is shown hanging from a noose and the body disposed of, people draw guns on each other, and there’s one beating
Adult situations: The whole plot involves adult situations, and there is some drinking
Takeaway: Toni Collette’s acting can really elevate a film