1969 was a simpler time. Mum was watching Personality Squares on TV, dad was tapping away at his typewriter in the office, and their teenage boy was sneaking out to hide a dead body with someone he barely knows. Wait, what?

13-year-old Charlie Bucktin (Levi Miller) is awakened late one night by a knocking at his window. His nocturnal visitor is Jasper Jones (Aaron L. McGrath), a slightly older and more rebellious lad who is ostracised for his Aboriginal/Caucasian heritage. Jasper leads the precocious Charlie to the body of a girl he has discovered in the woods. Believing that all fingers would be pointed at him should anyone find the corpse, Jasper asks Charlie to keep it a secret while they attempt to discover who really murdered her.

As the burden of keeping such a big secret takes its toll, Charlie’s sheltered life begins to unravel, along with his innocence. It’s this loss of innocence that leads him to the realisation that his Western Australian hometown of Corrigan harbours its own dark secrets beneath the blazing summer sun.

Based on the novel by Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones is a perfect fit for director Rachel Perkins, who has championed indigenous outcasts in Bran Nue Dae and Radiance. Here she explores the difficult world of racism and betrayal through the eyes of children. The vivid portrait it paints even has the lovely Toni Collette’s performance come across villainesque in Charlie’s mind.

However, in deploying a youthful perspective, some of the film comes off as child’s play. The darker aspects are overly dramatic, while the more light-hearted moments don’t sit comfortably with the downbeat themes. Granted the ‘important’ discussions between Charlie and his Vietnamese friend – one being about sexy mermaids – are audibly hilarious, and his relationship with his father warms the heart, but the fact that Jasper Jones draws more emotion from an uplifting cricket game than the big reveal is a concern.

Moreover, the threat of Charlie’s secret being revealed isn’t the high stakes drama it could have been. There are moments when the dead girl is forgotten altogether, and the emotional impact surrounding the horror of her murder is lost. But even with its low stakes, those taking young children could be asked some difficult questions concerning the movie’s adult themes.

In cinemas: March 2, 2017
Starring: Levi Miller, Aaron L. McGrath, Toni Collette
Directed by: Rachel Perkins