Warwick Thornton’s third feature, The New Boy, is cinematically marvelous with the rich visuals of the Australian outback. From the brown hues of the dusty desert, a little boy is brought into a Christian orphanage surrounded by green and golden farmlands. Spatially, the orphanage appears to be in the middle of nowhere, and the only connection to the world is a concrete road. Thornton’s camera captures the first sunrise that the new boy witnesses from the porch of the orphanage. A new life awaited him, away from the familiar. Though no one tried to physically attack him, could the space accept him for who he was and make him feel safe? Perhaps such doubts clouded the mind of the young Aboriginal boy brought forcefully into the unknown territory.
The strength demonstrated by the boy as he tussled with a policeman hinted at his extraordinary power. We gradually learn that the little boy could light a fire by rubbing his two fingers together. The tiny ball of light reminded him of his roots, of his strength, and of his people. It was his companion, a comforting presence in the mysterious new place. Thornton brilliantly captures the amusement, the fear, and the curiosity in the eyes of the Indigenous boy. 11-year-old Aswan Reid brings magic to the screen. It is hard to believe that The New Boy is Reid’s debut film. With barely any words spoken, Reid communicates the myriad of emotions that the little boy goes through to perfection.
While Cate Blanchett stars as Sister Eileen, the nun who runs the orphanage, Aswan Reid establishes himself as the star of the film. After Blanchett’s outstanding performance in Tar, she returns to the screen garbed in the black and white clothes of a nun. Sister Eileen has her own complications, and Blanchett is convincing as the nun who often resorts to drinking for respite. Bringing in another complex character to the narrative does not seem to have been a wise choice, considering how it takes away focus from our protagonist, whose wide-eyed curiosity does not for a second feel monotonous. Perhaps the contrasting personalities of the nun and the new boy were designed to strike a balance, but at times, they ended up being a distraction from the main plot.
Carried all the way from the deserts in a potato sack by a policeman, the young boy with golden locks was a special delivery arranged between the policeman and the orphanage clerk. The policeman was startled by Sister Eileen’s protective nature when he resorted to punishing the nameless boy in return for obedience. After snatching away the boy’s paperwork from the police, Eileen chose to allow the boy to feel at ease by letting him be. The boy crawled out from under the table and sat next to the nun. He was tired after the fight and the journey, and the calming presence of Sister Eileen helped him let down his guard. He was taken to the dorm room where the rest of the orphans were sleeping, and he was assigned a bed.
As Sister Eileen left the room, the curious eyes of the new occupant blinked open. He had never slept on a bed, and it only made sense for him to crawl under the bed and find his comfortable spot. He rubbed his finger and lit a tiny ball of fire—the spark within him was still alive, and he was carrying the gift of his people. The new boy walked around the orphanage church, staring at the figurine of Mother Mary with amusement. He tried his best to make sense of the unusual place. While the farmhand, George, treated him as a wild creature he preferred keeping his distance from, sister Mom and sister Eileen allowed the boy the time and space to adjust to the environment. The orphans gathered around the new boy, staring at him with extreme eagerness. His peculiar decision to sleep under the bed intrigued them. Initially, they unanimously decided to outcast him, but as soon as he demonstrated his physical strength, they realized that their decision could backfire.
Why Did Sister Eileen Experience Conflict?
The New Boy does not have much going on when it comes to the narrative. The film solely focuses on capturing the experience and emotion that indigenous children faced when taken in with the sole purpose of conversion and ‘civilizing’ them. In this case, the purpose was to fulfill the rising demands of the workforce, with men being sent to the war in Europe. Through the struggle of the individual, the film brings to light the process of conversion as experienced by the natives. What strikes me as interesting is the feeling of contradiction that Sister Eileen experienced once she realized that the new boy was not another ordinary indigenous child. He could heal wounds, bring a dead snake to life, and carry a magical light within him. The purpose of bringing in indigenous children or orphans was to convert them to Christianity, but how could she possibly deal with a godly being? Her religious duty was in jeopardy, and she interpreted the entire situation as punishment for being dishonest.
What Was Sister Eileen’s Secret?
The clerk heading the orphanages, Dom Peter, died a year ago, but Sister Eileen chose not to notify the higher authorities about it. The truth would have led to another male clerk taking over the duties, but Sister Eileen was not ready for the power transfer. She wanted to be the decision-maker for once, and she was aware that as long as she could provide the money that the institution earned from their harvest, no one would care enough to find out what was going on at the orphanage. From the little that we heard about Dom Peter, he seemed to be an abusive man who took advantage of his position, and Sister Eileen was not ready to have it anymore. As fearful as she was of God, she did not shy away from forging the clerk’s signature. Sister Eileen, in her own way, challenged patriarchal hegemony, though not always for the sake of being a rule-breaker. There were moments when she begged God for forgiveness for carrying out duties and tasks that were solely designed for a male clerk.
How Did The New Boy Challenge Sister Eileen’s Belief?
The new boy was treated with leniency by the nuns, but the situation soon changed when a crucifix was brought in. The indigenous boy could not fathom the fact that a man was nailed to a cross. It seemed he could feel the pain and torture that Christ once experienced. The boy did not know who it was; all he knew was that it was a new member of the orphanage. Just like he was clothed and fed the day he was brought to the new place, he did the same with the figurine. He took off the nails, dressed Christ in clothes, and fed Him the jam that he relished. He assumed that was how one was to be treated when brought into the orphanage, but he soon faced the repercussions for it.
There was a strange connection between the new boy and Christ. He hugged the crucifix just like he hugged a tree, and he showed signs of stigmata. Christ was misunderstood and nailed to a cross; was he going to meet the same fate? He, too, was blessed with unexplainable healing power, but he was met with fear. Treating the boy as a deity meant she would be abandoning her Christian duty, and Sister Eileen was afraid of the consequences. Anything beyond comprehension is something to be terrified of, and that was what was happening with the new boy. At the end of the day, it is a clash of Christian conviction and Indigenous spirituality. Since they could not allow the boy to be as he was meant to be, they needed to convert him into one of them.
Does The New Boy Lose His Power?
The film ends on an ambiguous note and leaves it up to the audience to interpret. Unable to keep the new boy in check, Sister Eileen decided to baptize him as her last resort. He had yet to learn to live the life of a civilized man, but the conversion was considered the need of the hour. The boy stood in front of a bucket of holy water, and his hair was washed with it. He stretched his hands, suggesting that he wanted them to be washed, but he soon realized he was losing the spark within him. He ran back to the dorm room, slipped under his bed, snapped, and rubbed his finger in the hopes of seeing the spark once again. He was no longer the boy he once was. He now wore sandals, brushed his hair, and was dressed in a white shirt and khaki shorts. He was just another native boy at the Christian orphanage. Even with his strength and power, he could not resist being colonized.
The New Boy‘s ending suggests that all was not lost. The sight of a snake still caught the boy’s attention, and he stored it in his pocket. He had once offered snakes to the crucifix, and he was ridiculed for it. Perhaps he never truly understood why. It hurt him to watch the snakes being stamped on, and he rescued one from the lot. He was not afraid of the wild, but perhaps it was only a matter of time. The figurine that once communicated with him stopped moving altogether after he lost his spark. The new boy waited patiently for the figurine to move, but alas, that never happened. This perhaps suggests how he would now view the world as an ordinary being whose identity and history have been washed off. He was not saved; his story was altered to fit into the colonizer’s narrative. Sister Mum, too, was hiding a story of loss as a result of colonization. She held the pictures of her two daughters close to her heart; her emotions suggested they had been taken away from her.
Infusing his lived experience, Warwick Thornton brings forth the duality of Christianity and Indigenous spirituality. Instead of coexistence, the struggle was to cement one as superior. While the new boy demonstrated similar power as the Holy One, the lack of acceptance and the fear of the unknown birthed misunderstanding and, ultimately, the correction of the one considered the other. The heavy subject matter of The New Boy is executed well, and the open-endedness of it makes it all the more intriguing.