First things first, the reason I pounced on the assignment of reviewing The New Boy without knowing much about it was the presence of Cate Blanchett. Her last role was the brilliant and terrifying Lydia Tár in Todd Field’s “Tár” last year. The legendary actress is known for doing a variety of roles but going from playing the megalomaniac music conductor to playing an Australian nun in the 1940s’ is a huge shift for Blanchett. It is not surprising that the actor excels here as well, delivering yet another brilliant performance. However, the real star of The New Boy is the boy himself, who is played by eleven-year-old Aboriginal actor Aswan Reid.
The New Boy opens with an incredible scene of a little Aboriginal boy overpowering a policeman and running away before getting caught by another policeman. The boy, who is mostly silent and only speaks the aboriginal language, is taken into a monastery, which is run by this priest, Dom Peter, or at least that’s what the world believes. But here’s the thing: Dom Peter is dead, and the place is actually run by Sister Eileen. She is ably supported by two of her trusted allies: another nun who goes by “Sister Mum” and this man, George, who mostly does all the handiwork around the place.
The central plot of The New Boy centers upon the Aboriginal child and how he settles in the monastery under the guidance of Sister Eileen, played by Blanchett. While the story appears to be seemingly mundane but interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention, there is more to it than meets the eyes. For starters, a lot of the film actually stems from Warwick Thornton’s own experience of growing up in Aboriginal culture. Thornton, who is known for astutely representing Aboriginal culture through his cinema, broke out with the 2009 Australian film Samson and Delilah, which ended up winning the prestigious best first feature award at the Cannes Film Festival. The director’s next big success was the 2017 film Sweet Country, which competed in the Venice International Film Festival and picked up the Grand Jury prize. Naturally, The New Boy was received with a lot of expectation and anticipation. And the casting of someone as big as Blanchett, who also came on board as a producer, along with her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, most definitely makes this one of Thornton’s biggest films to date.
The New Boy, being a kind of reflection of Thornton’s own life as an Aboriginal child, does make this an interesting project, but Thornton also infuses supernatural elements into the narrative, which adds a certain flair to it. Obviously, it’s the boy who has the abilities, including the power of healing, which creates a ripple in the other boys in the monastery and puts Sister Eileen in a conflicting position with her own faith. Thornton, who has been quite open about his anger toward Christianity and considers himself to be a non-religious person, has handled both the mythical and religious aspects of The New Boy exceptionally well, thanks to his understanding of the craft. It is pretty bold of him to make a film set in a religious Catholic monastery and have a lead character who is looking at Christianity from the perspective of an outsider.
The greatest thing about The New Boy, in my humble opinion, is its fascinating cinematography, and the credit for that goes to Thornton alone, who has shot the film as well, along with his writing and direction duties. The use of natural light, the golden rolling fields, and the kind of magical atmospheric charm Thornton manages to create through his camera should be considered staggering achievements. It even reminded me of legendary Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros’ work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979), which is rightfully considered one of the most visually satisfying films of all time.
As far as the acting performances of The New Boy go, you don’t really see Cate Blanchett underplaying a character in such a way that another character is managing to take the spotlight away from her. This is particularly hard to do for someone who has such a glorious screen presence, but for an actor of Blanchett’s caliber, anything she sets her mind to is possible. While the film didn’t quite resonate with me, it was great to see Blanchett still attempting to try different things, this time with her original Australian accent. Coming to the little wonder Aswan Reid, the boy probably doesn’t realize what he has managed to achieve here—overshadowing Cate Blanchett in a film. As an Aboriginal boy trying to find his way through life, Reid is absolutely magical. This is a child actor’s performance that should find a place in something like a hall of fame. The rest of the cast is adequate enough, although they didn’t really have much to do here.
However, with all said and done, I am finding it really hard to describe The New Boy as a film. It doesn’t fall into any specific genre; quite often, the story seems to lack a sense of purpose, and it seems like instead of offering the audience some sort of explanation, Thornton would prefer if we made our own assumptions about the true meaning of this story. In many ways, The New Boy comes off as an amalgamation of Thornton’s own thought process, his worldview, and a story interesting enough to be told on the big screen. Another director would have probably taken a more direct, commercial approach to telling this tale, but that is obviously not the case for Thornton, and I can’t help but respect that. The man does have his own conviction, and it shows on the screen when you see his work. Whether it works for you or not depends on how you perceive it. As far as my case goes, I can’t really say that The New Boy worked for me, no matter how much I appreciate the craft of the film.