The New Boy Review | Violence and Beauty Abound in Warwick Thornton’s Cate Blanchett Film


No matter where you may fall on the spectrum of faith, it cannot be denied that religion — Christianity, in particular, as is the subject of The New Boy — can be equally beautiful and frightening. On one hand, there’s something inspiring about the way in which faith can be used as a guiding principle for kindness, a means of fostering community, and a way of making sense of the world. On the other hand, of course, we have seen across history — and currently are seeing — the weaponization of religion, with faith becoming a source of justification for violence (whether physical or through dangerous rhetoric).

With The New Boy, which makes its North American premiere at TIFF, Kaytetye filmmaker Warwick Thornton turns his lens on Australia’s own history of colonization. Set in the 1940s, we follow as an Aboriginal boy, known only as “the New Boy” (Aswan Reid), is taken by the police to a secluded monastery that fosters abandoned children. It is run by Sister Eileen, played by Cate Blanchett, who also serves as co-producer under her company Dirty Films. Sister Eileen leads the shelter with care and devotion, resolute in her mission to baptize the boys into Christianity.

The New Boy, however, presents an interesting case for Sister Eileen, her assistant Sister Mum (Deborah Mailman) and the groundskeeper George (Wayne Blair). Though he seems inclined to stay and is intrigued by the goings-on of the monastery — an ornate crucifix in their church especially grabs his attention — the New Boy refuses to adopt the teachings being thrust upon him. Things escalate when the New Boy demonstrates magical abilities that, to Sister Eileen, confirm her own religious beliefs.

A Visually Stunning Film That Houses a Violent Story

The New Boy starring Cate Blanchett
Scarlett Pictures
Dirty Films

The New Boy is a gorgeous film, one of the most visually stunning at the festival and shot by Thornton himself, who pulls triple duty here as writer, director, and cinematographer. Often shooting long and wide, we’re able to take in the splendor of the Australian landscape. The sound team, consisting of Will Sheridan and Liam Egan, is a luxury here; the rustling of the leaves in the crop fields, the crunch of the gravel, and the flickering of the New Boy’s magic (which takes the form of a firefly-like spark) all bring out the wonders of the natural land.

Inside the church and the monastery, brought to life with a mix of reverence and horror by production designer Amy Baker, Thornton plays heavily with light and shadows, often evoking past religious iconography, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, in which Mary cradles the body of Christ after he is taken down from the cross. In a way, this brews the unstated conflict between Sister Eileen and the New Boy: when we’re outside in nature, we bask in its awe through the New Boy’s eyes, but, inside, where Sister Eileen is in charge, we move between his perspective and hers, and through the latter, we see her and her mission as she sees herself: a grueling work of art in the name of the Lord.

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Many movies with religious themes often turn inwards, whether it’s a sole character going through a crisis of faith or embarking upon a journey within a religious sect. However, The New Boy instead takes it outward, offering a subtle, though no less powerful, battle of wills between Sister Eileen’s Christianity and the New Boy’s Indigenous beliefs. What’s more, there’s a poignancy with which Thornton’s film sits at the intersection of these two systems of faith. There’s a scene in which the New Boy heals one of the children after he is badly injured, doing so without hesitation, which speaks to his inherent sense of kindness and community (coincidentally, two principles Sister Eileen aims to instill in the boys).

The tragedy is when Christianity tries to overtake the other. This is when the violence in The New Boy starts to expose the underbelly of Sister Eileen’s otherwise altruistic intentions. Whether it’s her stomping on the heads of harmless snakes the New Boy innocently brings into the church or him piercing his own palms with a wrought-iron nail (in front of the crucifix no less), there’s a steady yet visceral quality to the way Thornton allows the violence to unfold. That is, after all, how indoctrination works, coerced and otherwise.

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An Incredible Debut Performance from Aswan Reid

Aswan Reid in The New Boy
Scarlett Pictures
Dirty Films

The New Boy effectively presents another incredible performance from Blanchett. As Sister Eileen, she runs the gamut from determined and tortured, devoted to her mission and enthralled by the New Boy’s presence, but at the same time, there are flickers of doubt in her. She’s fearful of what the New Boy presents in terms of how he disrupts everything she has built and known in the monastery, and yet there’s a sparkle in her eye from how he, at the same time, confirms the faith she has promised herself to after all this time. Predominantly dressed in — perhaps, more appropriately, confined to — her religious habit, Blanchett invites both derision and sympathy.

That said, The New Boy certainly belongs to Reid. He only ever repeats one word throughout the film — “Amen” — but he brings an astonishing depth to the New Boy that his silence speaks louder than anything anyone else says. Fearless and precocious, Reid goes toe-to-toe against Blanchett, lending a tenderness and, in some scenes, a much-needed levity to the film. This is only his first movie, but his talent promises a bright future ahead.

For more information about The New Boy or the film festival, visit the TIFF website.

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