For about half an hour or so, Warwick Thornton’s “The New Boy” could almost fool you into thinking that it’ll be a gentle, evocative and beautifully atmospheric movie about a small group of people who mean well. But then things change, and an understated film that might have quietly dealt with Australia’s original sin – the decades-long removal of indigenous children from their parents – turns complex, spiritual and surpassingly unsettling, a mixture of religion and magic that doesn’t really trust in either.
It’s still beautifully composed, but it cuts that beauty with some thorny ideas and puzzling turns; it starts out beguiling, but it may end up getting under your skin.
Best known for “Samson and Delilah,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, Warwick has largely been working in television since then, with the notable exception of 2017’s “Sweet Country,” which looked at the conflict between white settlers and Aboriginal people. “The New Boy” brings him back to the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, where “Samson and Delilah” also screened — but this time he brought along Cate Blanchett, a fan turned collaborator who plays a nun and also served as a producer on the film.
Set in an Australian frontier of desert and dry grass, it brings sometime cinematographer Thornton’s remarkable eye to the story of a young Aboriginal boy who’s brought to an out-of-the-way home for “lost boys” run by a pair of nuns and a kindly handyman/farmer.
The setup is, of course, disquieting, given Australia’s decades-long history of removing indigenous children from their families to “assimilate” them into white society. But in this desolate environment, a community of people who care can be a refuge — especially since the film is set during World War II, when even young teenagers were in danger of being pulled into the military.
The refuge, such as it is, is overseen by Sister Eileen, a seemingly kindly nun who acts for all appearances like a male cleric: She gives the sermons, leads the prayers and even does baptisms. We gradually learn that’s because the monk who used to be in charge has died after a spell with dementia that left him abusive and profane, and Sister Eileen figures it’d be OK with God if she performs some priestly duties rather than risk losing the support of the officials who send boys to her, and at times receive young men to use in the war effort.
(Sister Eileen does, however, confess her little lies and subterfuges — to the empty chair where the priest used to sit.)
A young Aboriginal boy (magnetic newcomer and first-time actor Aswan Reid) is brought to her door by local law enforcement, and from the start the nameless child has little interest in assimilation. He sleeps on the floor under his bed, doesn’t wear a shirt or shoes, eats with his hands and virtually never speaks. Told he needs a name, Sister Eileen shrugs it off and says, “I’ll just call him New Boy.”
But New Boy, it turns out, is resistant to adopting new customs but fascinated by new religion. “Amen” is probably the word he deploys most regularly, while he’s as excited as Sister Eileen when she takes delivery of a life-sized crucifix for the chapel. Transfixed by every detail of a Jesus carved out of dark wood the color of his own skin, he almost immediately develops stigmata, bleeding from both palms.
George the handyman (Wayne Blair) eyes New Boy warily and walks out of the dining room when he shows up. “I know what the boy is,” he says ominously without specifying exactly what that might be. The other nun, dubbed “Sister Mum” by the boys who don’t have mothers of their own (Deborah Mailman), is more accommodating, but she’s clearly got secrets of her own: On her bedside table, Sister Mum keeps a photo of herself with her two daughters — and judging from her tears as she looks at the photo, her children were part of the so-called Stolen Generations, the indigenous children taken from their families from the early 1900s into the 1970s.
If George knows “what the boy is,” the audience is less certain. New Boy has the stigmata, but he also has a way with snakes, and he seems to conjure up sparks swirling around his fingers at essential times. He may have healing powers or he may not, and the connection between his Jesus obsession and his extraordinary abilities is never clear. Sister Eileen, meanwhile, slips into near hysteria herself, and things start feeling downright apocalyptic when a wildfire burns out on the horizon.
Without losing control of the material, Thornton lets things build to an unholy frenzy of sorts, or maybe it’s a holy frenzy. Youthful passions stirred up by religion have been a cinematic staple since long before “Carrie,” but “New Boy” finds a new spin by mixing it with a country’s history of oppression.
There’s not a lot of clarity here, but there is a terrible, strange beauty in the film’s mixture of ritual, magic, faith and the dark side of colonialism. By the end New Boy has a name, but his identity remains elusive.