Netflix’s Boy Swallows Universe is a limited series based on the novel by Trent Dalton, which he describes as semi-autobiographical. Essentially, it is the story of a boy who fights against all odds to create the life he wants for himself and his family. It is at the end of the series that we are told the meaning of the show’s title. Boy Swallows Universe refers to Eli ‘biting off more than he can chew,’ and it is one of those naming moments that we absolutely love. Throughout the story, Eli says and does things way above his pay grade. When the show starts, he is a thirteen-year-old who is learning to drive. Throughout the narrative, he goes through a lot, just a few of which include fighting against his bullies, breaking into prison to meet his mother, and also making a drug deal happen for the financial security of his family. Eli is an extraordinarily stubborn boy, and everything he does is driven by a desire to protect his loved ones without regard for his limitations. It is funny to see the audacity of this boy, who is able to make best friends with murderers and turn them into his mentors and friends. It is also funny to observe that the boy who struggles to stand up for himself against his bullies moves heaven and earth when it comes to protecting his loved ones.
In so many ways, this is a story about family and the work one puts in to create a secure future for oneself. Eli gets involved with the underworld because he doesn’t want his mother to start using drugs again, and slowly, Eli’s involvement increases when events spiral out of his control. The events of Boy Swallows Universe take place over four years, and in this time, we get a look at the courage of a boy who is undaunted in his pursuits because he doesn’t have adults around him telling him to be safe.
First of all, the actors, especially Felix Cameron, who plays the younger Eli Bell, are fantastic. The emotions of the boy, right from his scared tears to his oversmartness in the face of danger and eventually his desperation in the face of uncertainty, were executed by the actor with such effortlessness that there was no doubt that he had lived that role. His performance easily overshadowed everyone else, who had pretty much nothing to do in comparison with the child actor. Perhaps we can say that the villains, Ivan Kroll and Tytus Broz, played by Christopher James Baker and Anthony LaPaglia, respectively, generated the sufficient amount of dread that they were meant to. It is interesting to note that their appearance has been presented from a child’s perspective, which doesn’t really change even when we are presented with a grown-up Eli. There is something deliberately caricaturish about the makeup of Ivan Kroll and Tim Cotton (the police officer) that makes us think of what a child would draw when asked about the monsters under his bed because that is what these two characters are symbolic of. It is also interesting to note that the main villain, Tytus Broz, only wears white and has an unnaturally clippy manner of speaking because a child’s mind is unable to capture the complexity of bad people who put on a good front to the world. Only the villains are presented this way, with the rest of the characters adopting a more natural look.
Maybe Frankie and Caitlyn, played by Phoebe Tonkin and Sophie Wilde, respectively, stand out a little, but we must ask whether the choice to have Gus, played by Lee Tiger Halley, blend in the background so often was deliberate or an accident. In Boy Swallows Universe, he was one of the most noteworthy characters and often at the center of things, yet he seemed to disappear into the screen. It could be indicative of his character, who is supposed to be a man of few words, but it is still a little odd.
Overall, Boy Swallows Universe remains an arresting series. For the most part, you are not sure whether you want Eli Bell to be successful in his endeavors or simply find someone who will wrap him in a blanket and give him a safe space to comfort himself. He drives the narrative of the show, and the motivation for it all is his personal desires, which are love, career, and family. There is also an element of magic in the story, but it is easy and unnecessary to say that the real magic was in Eli’s perseverance. It is impossible to tell at times why Eli is still alive. Is it because no one is taking him seriously because of his young age or because Eli is aware of this perception and is calculatedly using it to his advantage?
There is a bit of a love story at the end that should have been left out of the story because, no matter what Eli did, he was still seventeen years old at the end of the show. ‘Grooming’ would be an inappropriate word to use, but ‘unnecessary’ and ‘forced’ would be more suitable to justify the romantic twist.
It is also hard to ignore that the finale of Boy Swallows Universe has a different flavor than the rest of the series. It plays out more like an undercover investigation than anything else. There is hardly any build-up to it, and it felt present for the sake of it in an effort to tie up loose ends more than anything else. It would have been better if Tytus Broz had more to do in the preceding episodes or if he had more of a presence in the boys’ lives. However, this series remains impressive. The bad and good guys are shown as being complex people who make hard decisions when required and grant mercy where they can. There is common sense even in the cruelty, and we haven’t quite seen a crime series based on that. Most of them usually include only a single instance of such behavior and opt for gore and grit for the rest. Boy Swallows Universe is a great watch and one of the best to start the year with.