OArwick Thornton’s latest film is certainly strange. In sheer stylistic bravado, The New Boy matches, and in some ways surpasses, the great author’s previous works, which include Samson and Delilah and Sweet Country. But driven by a desire for symbolic weight, The New Boy becomes an impenetrable, cryptic, borderline noodle-scraper stuffed full of heavy religious imagery. Seemingly inspired by Thornton’s own upbringing as an Aboriginal child attending a Christian boarding school, the film revolves around a young Aboriginal boy (Aswan Reid), known only by the titular description, who is seized by the police in the 1980s. 1940 and taken to an orphanage deep in the afterlife.
The boy’s supernatural powers – including the ability to heal wounds and create sparks of light from his hands – presumably mark a starting point in Thornton’s life, but they’re significant to the way writer-director Kaytetye connects Indigenous spirituality to Christian doctrine. What the movie exactly says, means, and represents, however, are the $64,000 and very open-ended questions. There are many provocative images: a flashing statue of the crucified Jesus, for example, and occasions in which the “new boy” suffers stigmata. But Thornton revels in ambiguity and has no desire to provide viewers with a clear path to understanding.
There’s nothing wrong with enigmatic films, like this one, which move like cloud formations across the sky, shifting patterns offering endless scope for interpretation. And especially when those clouds are created by Thornton, an accomplished stylist whose own superpower is creating ravishingly cinematic images, as if second nature. Such films can be extremely open. But where these movies can go wrong is when their images start to feel like they’re eclipsing the creator’s control, like the dancing broomsticks of Fantasia, or when provocation and abstention start to become the point. And there’s an element of that in The New Boy.
Among the film’s curiosities are a bizarre performance by Cate Blanchett (also on board as producer) as Sister Eileen, the nun who runs the orphanage; odd in that it doesn’t have much of an impact. Perhaps we are too used to Blanchett dazzling us. Here, the way the film plays, its style, is much more powerful than its performance. Fragmentary opening shots, accompanied by a catchy score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, show the boy seized by the police before being brought to Sister Eileen at the orphanage. The clergyman in charge recently passed away, but Eileen hides the news in order to run the place herself, with the help of another nun, Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and farmhand, George (Wayne Blair).