The New Boy: realism is undercut by magic in Warwick Thornton’s Outback fable

A young indigenous boy with perplexing powers is forcibly brought to a Christian orphanage led by the alcoholic Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett) in Warwick Thornton’s sketchy, fragmented drama.

15 March 2024

By Jonathan Romney

Aswan Reid in The New Boy (2023)
Sight and Sound

Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy begins with a caption providing historical context: it explains Australia’s former official policy of ‘breeding out the black’ by separating Indigenous children from their families and culture. This might seem to promise a historically rooted realist drama – something like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), which addressed this theme. But The New Boy, informed by Thornton’s experience as an Indigenous child in a Catholic school, is a very different proposition.

Despite references to war in Europe and to national specifics – like the ironically-named ‘Chief Protector of Aboriginals’ – The New Boy establishes a fictional world strangely disconnected from outside realities. The orphanage is set in a vast tract of rolling terrain, a self-enclosed cinematic space reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) (the close-ups of waving corn could hardly be more Malickian). Notwithstanding the detail with which Thornton furnishes this microcosmic world, the film has a hermetic atmosphere and a compressed fable-like quality, all the more for its brevity (premiered in Cannes at 116 minutes, it is now released in a 96-minute cut).

The realities of The New Boy seem as unanchored as its young nameless hero, said to be unrelated to any tribes of the region. Captured in the desert, he is brought to a spartan compound where nun Sister Eileen runs an orphanage on its last legs, with only seven boys in residence; she is hiding the recent death of its principal, a cue for spiky comedy as she fakes an offscreen argument with the late cantankerous abbot. 

The largely silent New Boy rejects the house rules, sleeping under his bed and wearing only shorts. Indeed, he is allowed to, remaining an object of bemusement to the other boys and to the establishment’s skeleton staff. He is fascinated by the apparatus of his new world: notably a large wooden Jesus, sent from Europe. Just as he previously hugged a tree outside, he climbs and hugs the crucifix – the first time he really shocks the otherwise tenderly indulgent Sister Eileen. Thornton eschews the element of tyranny that tends to come as standard in tales of religious upbringing – making the sister all the juicier a role for Cate Blanchett, who plays her by turns as pugnacious, neurotic, rueful and vulnerable, her weathered, puffy face backing up the intimations of alcoholism.

The realism is undercut by magic: a little floating ball of light, trailing sparks, that the Boy produces from his palm, hovering beside him like his personal Tinkerbell. This manifestation is linked with his apparent powers as a miracle worker; sucking venom from a snake-bitten schoolmate, he spits it out as copious dark fluid, an image echoing Sister Eileen’s red wine and the blood that drips from Jesus’s wounds (and from the stigmata that the Boy himself displays). 

Cate Blanchett as Sister Eileen in The New Boy (2023)

The Boy, says George, is “a long way from home” – and indeed, he is not of this world. He seems a kind of angel, which the casting of newcomer Aswan Reid bears out, with his wide eyes, delighted alertness and unkempt halo of golden hair, highlighted in Thornton’s camerawork. As in Samson and Delilah (2009) and Sweet Country (2017), Thornton is his own cinematographer, creating moments of striking visual metaphor: notably, there is a shot of the Boy through one door framed against another, highlighting his isolation.

Thornton largely avoids the familiar and the schematic but the film ends up somewhat bluntly making its point about the baleful effects of severing people from their heritage. While the Boy is fascinated by contact with an alien belief system, it also becomes emphatically clear that Christianity must inevitably sap the life force that makes him uniquely himself – both Aboriginal and a child. The point is more subtly made through Sister Eileen’s helpers, ‘Sister Mum’ and George (economical, memorable characterisations by Deborah Mailman and a gruff Wayne Blair), themselves Aboriginal and long since distanced from their own origins. It is precisely because of his affinity with and understanding of the Boy that George views him all the more warily.

Coherent and succinct as this release cut is, there remains a sketchy, fragmented quality: an episode involving a nearby fire feels unintegrated with the rest. And there is no avoiding a preciousness in the VFX magic, which fits awkwardly with the film’s harder edge and gently caustic humour. For all the imagination, mischief and nuance it displays, The New Boy finally boils down a little too neatly to the religious travails of an Outback Peter Pan.

 ► The New Boy is in UK cinemas now.