I wrote down the word “terrible” at the end of my Sydney Film Festival screening of ‘The New Boy’, Warwick Thornton’s latest Indigenous film. And I didn’t mean the film; I meant the fate of the New Boy, as 11 year old Aswan Reid’s character is called throughout.

It’s a spoiler to reveal what that fate is, but essential to an understanding of this delicate analysis of the project to assimilate First Nations Australia by many during the colonial process. In this film’s study, the villain is the Catholic Church. But Thornton’s delicacy comes from his presentation of that threat as lying in the flawed but well-meaning hands of Cate Blanchett’s Sister Eileen – the dominie of a remote institution for wayward boys in South Australia’s wheatbelt during the Second World War.

For the so-called “bolter” delivered in a sack in the middle the night to the Sisters’ care is without doubt a natural Ngangkarni, a Desert healer holding mysterious powers to identify an injury or sickness and cure it by occult means. And I suspect that the mesmeric Reid’s origins with his smooth dark skin and blond hair streaks are appropriately Pintupi.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that Thornton has had to visualise those incredible powers by what I could only think of as a Tinkerbell light emanating from his hands. It wanders around – as silently as its master – assisting in the healing processes of a snakebite and burns, then returns to his hands. But how else could such an inexplicable power be revealed?

So much of this film’s achievement – recognised by selection for Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – depends on Reid’s face. It’s a miracle that he was found – for he never looks either innocent or evil, but knowing, endlessly investigating his new world, and in control of most situations in a way that only the surly George (Wayne Blair) – who runs the institution’s farm – recognises as a threat. Which makes his detribalisation at the hands of the Church’s own mysterious rite of baptism all the more terrible.

Reid’s frustrated unbelief at the loss of his light is heart-rending, and his decision to bolt once again is inevitable.
Around him, Cate Blanchett brilliantly imbues the nun who has illicitly taken over this institution when Dom Peter dies – aware of her sins, assuaging them with the odd drink, believing in Christianity’s potential to ‘save’ her little flock of Aboriginal boys and capable of some hysterical theatricality when Dom Peter’s signature is required to accept the arrival of a mighty crucifix. And that will go on to play a visceral part in the story. Blanchett is well-supported by Deborah Mailman’s Sister Mum, who’s clearly a frustrated mum if only her life had turned out differently.

I have some doubts about the various functions of that crucifix, and I wonder whether Nick Cave’s occasionally bombastic music damages the film’s delicacy?

But I have no doubt that Aswan Reid’s New Boy emerges as a superior moral force in a world that was determined to replace it with belief in a winking Christ! And in Thornton’s impressive feature film opus – writing, directing and filming them all – The New Boy is way up there with Samson & Delilah and a Country mile ahead of Sweet Country.

The film goes public on the weekend of 1st July.

And as if to underline Thornton’s faith in mystical healers, I note that a show at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne – Shadow Spirit – features a series of artworks by him called Way of the Ngangkari – see pic.