Through the innocent eyes of an observant and curious child, any story, no matter how crazy or dull, can seem like a fantastical adventure. And for Brisbane-based author Trent Dalton, recounting his objectively difficult upbringing (consisting of a mute brother, a long lost father, a substance addicted mother, a drug dealing step-dad, and a jail broken babysitter) in his widely acclaimed, best-selling, semi-autobiographical 2018 novel Boy Swallows Universe, through the lens of a version of his younger self in the character of Eli not only resonated with readers, but the unique setting of suburban Brisbane in the 1980s, pulled the curtains back on a part of the world rarely discovered in fictional media, but was undeniably relatable and nostalgic to many, Australians in particular.
It’s no surprise that a big story, with a big following, requires a big company in order to bring Dalton’s vision to the screen. And that’s when Netflix steps in, who along with producers Andrew Mason and Troy Lum, have collaborated with legendary Australian actors such as Travis Fimmel, Simon Baker, Bryan Brown, Phoebe Tonkin, and many more, to as authentically as possible adapt Dalton’s novel in one of Australia’s largest television productions ever.
Eli (Felix Cameron) is an inquisitive, quite precocious, young fella, living in the working-class suburbs of Brisbane in the 1980s with his selectively mute brother who hasn’t spoken since he was 7 years old, Gus (Lee Tiger Halley), his addiction recovering mother Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin), and his loveable larrikin (also heroin dealing) stepdad Lyle (Travis Fimmel). Even though the family dynamics within Eli’s world are dysfunctional and complex, to say the least, he unflinchingly loves them all, just as much as they love him. Something that is most prevalent in the relationship Eli shares with his brother, Gus, of which the two have figured out a unique form of signing to communicate with each other.
While schoolwork and learning to drive should be at the forefront of Eli’s upcoming adolescence, he unfortunately is preoccupied with the fact that there was a point in time where his mother, Frankie, was a drug addict, a debilitating affliction brought on by Lyle that led to an uncomfortably confronting and traumatic memory of Eli having to listen to his mother painfully suffer during a cold turkey approach to weaning her off of the drugs. Despite Eli’s stern warning to Lyle to never put his mother through that again, a recent revelation that Lyle is back to his old ways leads Eli down a dark, yet dangerously adventurous path that leads to altercations with gangsters, drug lords and criminals.
After an intensely riveting opening scene of Boy Swallows Universe’s first episode that included gangsters roughhousing kids, knives pointed to necks, and a car boot being filled with petrol fumes while someone is locked inside, the true tone of this unique coming of age story shows itself in the form of Eli’s whimsical narration. This is where the heart of Dalton’s tale lies and is brought to life by an incredibly mature performance from newcomer Felix Cameron, who doesn’t let his maturity as an actor take away from his interpretation as a young kid trying to navigate such an extremity of a familial situation.
The authenticity in Cameron’s performance, with all the unfiltered curiosity and f-bombs expected from an Australian youth, grounds the emotional investment into the more realistic elements of Boy Swallows Universe. This is also a sentiment shared by many of the co-stars, who all portray their characters with enough realism and honesty to their core characteristics that it’s impossible not to make comparisons to one’s own family and life while watching this series.
Phoebe Tonkin is a scene stealer as Frankie, who bleeds all the motherly compassion one can on to the screen and is shown that love back by her family even more so, especially from Eli. Bryan Brown’s understated, yet effective turn as Lyle’s mate from prison and now occasional babysitter for the two brothers perfectly fits the mould of ‘advice giving uncle’. And taking into consideration the lack of dialogue required for Gus, rising star Lee Tiger Halley epitomises actions over words in his performance.
Things get a little more interesting with Travis Fimmel, who no matter what end of the spectrum his performance is on, is such an enigmatic eye-drawer on screen, who’s demeanour, both physical and emotional, embodies everything about a typical Australian blue-collar larrikin who works hard, enjoys beers, and most of all loves his family.
Lyle as a character creates the most emotional complexity for Eli throughout the story, because Lyle is the one who introduced Frankie to the drugs that ended up taking over her life, but Lyle also loves Eli wholeheartedly, which is felt and reciprocated by Eli himself. The dynamic between Cameron and Fimmel is truly exciting to watch, even if it is majorly propelled by Cameron’s ability to put someone as experienced as Fimmel in his place.
There are times where Fimmel’s performance can feel a little to eccentric for the tone of the show, and it is noticeable. But that isn’t entirely on Fimmel, because the narrative of Boy Swallows Universe does contain some heightened and fantastical elements by being told through the perspective of the imaginative Eli. Abstract run ins with gangsters, confidently backseat driving on drug runs, and Colonel Sanders looking characters don’t always match the more dramatic tones of a tale of addiction or dealing with severe trauma.
Then on top of that, when scenes take incredibly violent turns, and are dealt with in a far more serious manner, the whiplash of feeling in those moments does make you take a step back and wonder, “what is this show actually about right now?” This is an issue more so in the first episode as Boy Swallows Universe attempts to find it’s feet as a show, but the ship steers in the right direction during an incredibly enjoyable second episode.
In the director’s chair for the first two episodes is Shantaram director Bharat Nalluri, who brings a truly cinematic quality to the series, capturing Eli’s coming of age tale with the tenderness he shows as a character. Warmly lit, afternoon sunshine scenes are used to capture Eli’s perception of his family’s (and chosen family’s) love, while neon-lit restaurants or slow-motion prison fights showcase some eye-catching work from Nalluri. All the while, on full display, is suburban Brisbane in all of it’s working-class glory that truly feels like a lively character itself through the cinematic visuals.
Boy Swallows Universe is a very interesting coming-of-age tale that initially suffers from tonal confusion. However, as it finds it’s footing as the series continues, the heartfelt narrative, stunning visual style, intriguingly adventurous situations, and a brilliant lead performance from Felix Cameron (with a strong supporting cast by his side) leaves a decent sense of curiosity to continue on with this adaptation of Trent Dalton’s novel.
All episodes of Boy Swallows Universe will begin streaming on Netflix from January 11. Thank you to Netflix, M4M Agency, and Organic PR for showing the first two episode at the global premiere.
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