Cate Blanchett Stars in This Beautiful, Flawed Drama

May 21, 2023

Set in 1940s, Warwick Thornton presents The New Boy, a story set in a 1940s orphanage located in the rural Australian outbacks. The film follows an unnamed Aboriginal boy played by Aswan Reid who is taken from the wilds of the outback and brought to a Catholic orphanage to be “civilized”. The film dabbles in magical realism, often portraying the boy with a sort of magical power, and as the film progresses we watch as that power and his identity is pushed to conform to the culture of the colonial invaders.

Narratively, The New Boy meanders at points, uncertain if it wants to focus on the life of Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) and her struggle to keep spinning plates up as she runs the orphanage or the story of the boy. The two often braid together, but adding the elements of magic and mysticism muddies the waters by the end of the film.

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‘The New Boy’ Presents Cate Blanchett as a Nun on a Mission

Image via Roadshow Films

Sister Eileen is a kind-hearted nun, devout and passionate about her religion, and aloof after all her time spent in the rural outbacks. Blanchett plays Eileen with earnestness and gentle desperation. She’s determined to tame these wild boys and hopes that they flourish when they’re sent away from the orphanage. Having suffered under the yoke of a domineering priest, Eileen goes in the exact opposite direction by giving the boys autonomy and love in the best way she can. She’s assisted by Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) who acts as a cook and another loving maternal figure to the boys.

If Eileen and Mum are the supportive maternal figures, then Wayne Blair’s George is the exacting father figure. A work hand who lives on the land and helps the orphanage out, George is fickle and domineering. He assists Eileen and Mum in physical labor, but he also lords his position of power over the boys. Specifically, he enjoys taunting the titular new boy, dehumanizing him, and treating him cruelly.

Aswan Reid Is the Highlight of ‘The New Boy’
Although he isn’t given anything real to say at all, spending a lot of the movie in silence, Aswan Reid is the highlight of the film. He’s expressive and leans into both the youthful innocence and also the rebellious nature of a boy his age. It’s Thornton’s push to include mysticism that ultimately weakens the story. It’s certainly the most visually arresting moment when we see the boy conjure up a magical bright spark that only he can see, but the way the magic is utilized as a storytelling device is often far too heavy-handed.

Instead, the boy’s best moments are opposite Blanchett, Mailman, or Blair. It’s when the film delves into the power dynamics of the orphanage or the emotional relationships developing, that we get the most from both the cast and Thornton’s direction. Reid plays brilliantly off of the older cast, and it’s a pity that we don’t get to explore those relationships more.

Without a Strong Narrative Foundation, Thornton Still Has an Amazing Artistic Eye

Image via Cannes Film Festival

As the film barrels toward its ending, the third act is when everything falls apart. The boy is forming a bizarre connection to the Catholic religion, with an odd moment between him and a giant wood carving of Jesus, and Eileen is at the end of her rope. Unraveling, ultimately the ending of The New Boy is rather underwhelming and unsurprising.

However, where Thornton’s narrative falters, his camerawork and directorial eye are stronger than ever. With a background in documentary filmmaking and cinematography, the shots of the Australian outback are stunning landscapes painted in oranges and gold. With a dedicated eye to highlighting the beauty of the land, The New Boy is visually arresting and stunning to behold.

Grade: C+

The New Boy had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

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