The spark of life that gave Warwick Thornton what is now “The New Boy” took 18 years to flicker, and then fully glow. The Australian filmmaker looked to his own childhood, raised by monks, to find the spiritual fairy tale that now manifests via the film’s eponymous Aboriginal child in a sweeping and poetic portrait of stifled faith and the threat of monopoly on religion.
Thornton’s cinema is one of enormous, orchestral music and vast landscapes that envelop and invite us in, even if you feel like you don’t know where you’re going or shouldn’t be allowed to look around. It’s the kind of culturally specific filmmaking that somehow immediately gains universality in that ambition to connect, to understand the empathy and sensitivity to listen in to these conflicts and this bright spark of a boy who speaks to struggles of faith however you were raised.
He is simply known as the New Boy, a nameless Aboriginal boy (a breakout turn from Aswan Reid, almost completely silent but beguiling) welcomed in by Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) at her fiercely protective remote monastery. It’s 1940s Australia in the middle of World War II, and the New Boy is captured by a horseback police patrol and dumped with Sister Eileen. But she does and will care for him — her faith is religious but also transcendent when it comes to her small group of boys. She works with the Church, but ultimately for those she cares for.
That includes two Aboriginal staff, George (Wayne Blair) and Sister Mum (prolific Australian TV actress and emotive standout Deborah Mailman) who, with Sister Eileen, nurture the next generation while reconciling multiple schools of thought in the name of survival. But Thornton often lenses the film with great beauty (acting as DoP as well as writer and director, alongside Jules Wurm as camera operator), as much in wide-open vistas of the wild bush in the wind as the fragility of a fly landing on Sister Eileen’s eyelid as she awakens from a nap. The world is harsh, challenging, but there is poetry in the hope that things can still grow and become beautiful.
It doesn’t hurt to have Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on scoring duties, arguably the best possible pairing to work with this out-of-reality remote way of living, engaging with the natural world, its parched fields and beating sun, while still injecting immense life and humanity — and so, hope — into everything that breathes. And that goes for a lot more things than you’d initially expect.
Everything changes for the New Boy — and for Sister Eileen — when a life-size carving of Christ on the cross arrives. Everybody knows what it means, but the New Boy doesn’t. He sees things the others don’t, and Reid’s angelic innocence is hypnotic to follow. He eventually manages two words after spending some time feeling his way through these things everybody seems to believe in: “Slut” and “Amen.” But the words don’t matter — his spark does. Thornton injects a childlike sense of wonder with literal glimmers of light, magic realism making its way into this stark, severe environment. Because when you’re a kid, out in a bold new world, it’s all you have.
The New Boy sees things in Christ that only he can. There’s movement — in his chest, his sighing eyebrows, in droplets of blood making a splash on the floor that nobody else can feel. It’s like nothing Sister Eileen has ever experienced, which pushes Blanchett’s own performance to extremes that the likes of Lydia Tár would shudder at. There’s deep emotion and vulnerability in Blanchett’s work, with its performance counteracting the New Boy’s calm and comfortable otherness with an almost overbearing dedication to care.
What Thornton is striving toward, an embrace of generosity, of humanity being able to change what faith and religion even mean, is often moving. But in ways that many cynics of the world we live in have long lost — that spark only touches those still letting it in. Reid plays the New Boy’s difference, almost beyond human, with surprising subtlety and restraint for such a raw performer (which is essential to capture that primal sense of survival at all costs). There’s conflict in everything, in the clashing of worlds and the fight for a world that makes sense to believe in, yet miraculous poetry and optimism somehow, too.
But then whatever seems like it’s taking us down a path shifts — and the spark is out. And even then, all is not lost (how could it ever be, with “Sing Sing Sing” by Benny Goodman just entering the show). The New Boy may have entered the community somewhat, changed paths just a little, but Sister Eileen’s community is entirely different than what it once was. Christianity must make room for Aboriginal spirituality, and all other schools of thought in the world we live in, full of new boys. That Thornton has found a language to tell this loud, and find magic in it, could be a tiny miracle in itself.
“The New Boy” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.