Back in 2017, Warwick Thornton landed in Venice with a western that offered some corrective to the white-savior narratives of countless others in the genre. Sweet Country, his third feature, chronicled the real-life story of an Aboriginal stockman arrested and tried for the death of a white ranch owner in 1920s Australia. Hardly the first to foreground racial tensions within a period setting, the film stood as a refreshing departure from others that only ostensibly acknowledged Indigenous peoples’ experience under colonialism, but wound up prioritizing the redemptive arcs of their white heroes. Six years later, along comes The New Boy, a film that shares the same ethos of its predecessor. Here, too, Thornton digs up a chapter of his country’s past to subvert and ultimately reappropriate the white man’s iconography: where Sweet Country took on the western, The New Boy tackles colonialism through the prism of the Church. But the film isn’t a patch on its more sophisticated ancestor, and the journey Thornton conjures feels didactic and unimaginative––all the more surprising for a tale featuring a miracle boy and a blinking crucifix.
The boy’s an Aboriginal child (newcomer Aswan Reid). Abducted by a horseback police patrol in the middle of the desert and shipped to a remote monastery orphanage, he’s handed over to Cate Blanchett’s Sister Eileen. Eileen is also an outcast-of-sorts. The convent used to be run by an irascible priest whose death she’s kept secret for over a year––lest the frail ecosystem she presides over with two Aboriginal staff, fellow nun Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and taciturn farmhand George (Wayne Blair), be shattered forever. Which of course is just what the newcomer does. Dubbed New Boy, the kid doesn’t speak English, has no understanding of Western norms, but has seemingly been bestowed with otherworldly powers. Only a few minutes in and Thornton––here in triple-duty as writer, director, and cinematographer––finds him crouched under a bed in the orphanage’s dorm, furiously rubbing his hands to produce an incandescent spark that will follow him like a Tinker Bell and guide him in times of need. It’s the first of many strange happenings that will pave the child’s sojourn, none more telling than his visceral reaction before a man-sized carving of Christ on the cross shipped to the monastery midway through. As the boy performs a series of miracles––and new, supernatural events blur his distance from the wooden statue––Eileen is forced to reconsider her allegiances.
The child’s metamorphosis and nun’s spiritual crisis serve as this film’s backbone. The New Boy, in its barest terms, tells the story of an impossible alchemy. Even as the kid winds up incarnating a Christ-like figure, the religious order he’s up against can never fully accept him as his second coming, nor can his spiritualism be reconciled with the Church’s dogmas. No such syncretism could ever blossom in a colonial setting, The New Boy keeps trumpeting, and the noble-minded mission Eileen has embarked upon––rescuing and converting an Indigenous child––really just is another, more subtle form of subjugation.
Hardly illuminating epiphanies, yet Thornton’s script does succeed in painting the newbie as a subversive threat to the establishment. The New Boy works best when its pint-sized protagonist mocks and reappropriates Christian iconography: largely silent, his first English word is an insult uttered at the wooden Jesus that he’ll then nurse, dress, and feed as an inanimate orphan––all while parroting the same condescending tone Eileen’s aides had used when the boy first shored up at the monastery. There’s something confrontative about these sequences, which make up the film’s most inspired and original. But as the script starts addressing the child’s supposed resemblance to the messiah, its imagery becomes more inert, ideas staid, symbolism overwrought. Once the carved statue arrives at the monastery, The New Boy turns into a compare-contrast exercise, each of its surreal visions designed to remind one of the striking analogies between Aboriginal kid and Christian prophet. Past that crucial juncture and ominous delivery, the film no longer reveals anything; it merely demonstrates. It becomes a still life.
Which is particularly troubling for a tale that wants to chart a spiritual education, a portrait of a boy communing with the divine. There are moments when Thornton captures New Boy as he awakens to the strange beauty of his surroundings: poking at dust motes or toying with elements that Christian iconography would peg as eldritch, if not outright satanic (snakes are a key leitmotif). Even those digressions suggest links in a rigid causal chain, segments that do not open up the kid’s inner world so much as guide one, step-by-step, along his metamorphosis. A score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis plays astonishingly mute, unable to heighten the magic and dread this film should radiate. But perhaps the most troubling afterthought is that the boy’s journey is ultimately filtered through the woman who must reckon with its consequences. The New Boy might be the child’s tale, yet only nominally; all his otherworldly gestures matter only insofar as they jostle with Eileen’s principles. Blanchett gives a committed turn as the conflicted nun, but all her emphatic exertions cannot resurrect a story that forsakes its mysticism for a calculated parable, as well-intentioned as it is turgid.
The New Boy premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.