Do you sometimes feel like writing down every second piece of dialogue while watching great TV or movies? That’s exactly the feeling I would use to describe Netflix’s latest coming-of-age show that takes us Down Under. Adapted from the debut YA novel of the same name by author Trent Dalton, the show is an almost fantasy-like crime thriller, but with children. Picture Boyhood, but in the form of a TV show, with a lot of violence and none of the slow burn. I suppose it’s an Australian thing to be uniquely imaginative with crime stories that are almost surreal while simultaneously implying that they are inspired by real-life events. I mean, Shantaram does happen to be one of the more exciting pieces on my bookshelf, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between these two pieces of work. Not merely because they hail from the pens of Australian authors (who spin their webs from personal experiences) and embark on immersive explorations of criminal realms (each vastly distinct from the other), but rather, it’s the intricate dance of human response within these scenarios that truly make these stories so remarkable.
Boy Swallows Universe follows Eli, a 13-year-old boy with a mute brother, an alcoholic father, a drug-addict mother, a heroin-dealing stepfather, and a supposed criminal mastermind as a babysitter. You’re already thinking this is bizarre, but hold your horses, because things are about to get way more exciting, way faster than you anticipated. The show follows Eli from ages 13 through 17 as he comes of age in a world of crime juxtaposed with love. I suppose you can imagine there are exaggerations because our narrator is a child with a splendid imagination. I suppose at the heart of it all, it’s a simple story about growing up too soon and having a curious eye that saves you from all things dangerous. The word “magic” is used in the Goodreads description of this novel, and I will admit it’s quite a magical experience watching it (at the risk of sounding very cheesy).
Eli is one of the most delightful young characters I’ve seen in recent television history. I suppose it’s because the show is set in the 1980s. Was it just common practice for children to cuss all the time back then? Because why else, like in Stranger Things, would this boy not know how to watch his mouth? Well, I mean, yeah, he’s growing up with criminals, but they have rules too! Halfway into the show, I did find myself wondering what age demographic this show was for because it’s grossly violent, profanity is second nature, and some of the dialogue made my late-20s self realize how sad and depressed I really might be. In truth, I think this is a family dramedy with a hint of crime for excitement’s sake. Watching Eli’s journey is simultaneously staggering and deeply emotional. And I can’t go without mentioning the title of the last episode, which is eerily similar to BTS’ Boy Meets Evil, and the fact that there’s a sort of overlap has me going feral.
Every character has a unique lovable quality to them, except for the one white-suit-donning antagonist, whom you just want to smack in the face. It’s the exaggeration of everyday events and the almost fantasy film-like acting and scenes that really make this story work. A show like this can’t work with bad acting, and I’ve got to admit that these kids had me bawling my eyes out. Young Eli is simply impeccable, and if he came up to me and asked 100 questions, I would answer each with the finest detail possible. Felix Cameron needs all the awards right now. Especially for the scene where his stepdad asks him why he’s crying, and he replies he doesn’t know, but there’s just too many tears in him. I suppose I felt that dialogue in my chest and might be a little biased, but you’ll know when you see it. On the other hand, there’s Lee Tiger Halley as the mute Gus, who is beautifully expressive with his eyes and his body language throughout the show. Then there are the adults who are perfectly supportive of these kids and bring in all the humor we require to swallow this story whole. Zac Burgess, as 17-year-old Eli, has a special ability to act with his eyes and look both innocent and tremendously confident, just as the character is meant to be, and I can’t separate the two from each other. Also, don’t end up shocked like me to realize The Mentalist (wooh, what a throwback) star Simon Baker is Australian. Sophie Wilde is fantastic as always, and I love to see her on home ground.
It’s rare that you want to sit through more young adult fiction when it’s over. I suppose when you’re a grown-up, you feel like you’ve seen it all; however, Boy Swallows Universe makes you want to keep going, to know about what happens later, and possibly to know if Eli makes it out as a perfect adult (I am not comparing myself to a fictional character). As is the case with a lot of teen shows right now, there’s something or the other that comes off as unnecessary in the plot that just gives you an ick. To me, Boy Swallows Universe is near perfect. I especially love the fantastical, over-exaggerated elements that make it almost feel like we’re watching it through the eyes of the unreliable child narrator Eli. I’m not even the biggest fan of crime TV, but I’m left pleased after watching this show. Of course, I can’t not mention the costuming (make the bogan mullet a worldwide phenomenon, thank you), the beautiful scenery of Brisbane, and the banging score of this show that really ties everything together and wraps it with a large red bow—a very late Christmas present if you will. At the end of the day, if you’re a family-loving softie or a crime-thriller kind of person, Boy Swallows Universe is the perfect pick for a weekend binge. So, yeah, go watch this show, have some fun, and go back to wanting to be a fictional character who is a crime-solving genius while also being a foolish boy who simply “loves.” I promise it’s worth it. I’d give Boy Swallows Universe 4 out of 5 stars.