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Boy Swallows Universe, Netflix review: fantasy can’t find footing

The much-hyped adaptation has a lot going for it, but the strongest elements are the ones pretty much every Australian prestige drama gets right.

A certain kind of freewheeling crime movie (often directed by Guy Ritchie) will open with our hero in the middle of a tricky predicament, only for the image to suddenly freeze while the voice-over says something like ‘yes, that’s me – bet you’re wondering how I got into this situation’.

So what to read into the fact that Boy Swallows Universe – the highly anticipated adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestseller and massive cultural phenomenon – opens with a brutal home invasion that ends on a sudden freeze frame as pre-teen lead Eli (Felix Cameron) says in a cheery voice-over ‘you know, life’s really different when you grow up in a family of outlaws’?

‘Outlaws’, it rapidly becomes clear, is a child’s perception of things. Eli’s current stepfather Lyle (Travis Fimmel) is a low-level drug dealer trying to be a good dad. His mother Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin) is the perfect parent now that she’s off the smack. And his babysitter, Lyle’s old prison mate Slim Halliday (Bryan Brown, playing a character based on a real crim of Dalton’s acquaintance), spent a long stretch behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t do. Obviously the justice system disagreed.

On the mean streets of suburban Queensland in the 80s, Eli is determined to keep his loved ones on the straight and narrow. Dalton’s novel has been described as ‘a working class fairy tale’; the fact this collection of crims tolerates Eli’s repeated efforts to screw over their criminal enterprises bears the fairy tale side of things out.

That abrupt mood shift in the opening scene – followed in quick succession by Halliday giving Eli a wacky driving lesson – sets the tone. Boy Swallows Universe is a warm-hearted nostalgic look back at an 80s childhood, only with gritty crime. It’s a genre mash-up: think a YA version of Animal Kingdom with an uplifting moral, or an Aussie version of Stranger Things where The Upside Down is where Lyle collects his smack and instead of the Demogorgon there’s a motorbike-riding crim named Ivan Croll.

Fantastic

A story where a gutsy pre-teen holds his own in a world of adult lawbreaking is not going to be plausible on any realistic level, which is where the fantasy angle comes in. Eli’s older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley), who hasn’t spoken in years, communicates by writing on air and can possibly see the future. Other fantastic elements come to the fore as the story progresses, though at times it’s hard to be sure how seriously we’re meant to be taking things.

But even at its most serious, this is always a fantasy. Crime here works largely as a metaphor for the adult world, not something that involves doing real criminal acts – otherwise Lyle’s return to drug dealing would feature him dealing drugs – and the adult world has plenty of caring characters engaged with Eli’s life.

Aside from his immediate family, he’s got thoughtful penpal Alex (played by rapper Briggs) providing useful advice from prison, though lines like ‘Dear Alex, there’s a lot that goes unsaid in our kind of family’ suggest Eli has a bright future writing voiceovers for Australian dramas. Even the boys’ meddling school counsellor (Deborah Mailman) thinks they have enormous potential, if not for some ‘past trauma’. Doesn’t she realise when you have grit and determination (and lovable crim mates), you can overcome anything?

There are moments that effectively up the emotional intensity. Beyond the opening home invasion, Frankie’s Trainspotting-style forced detox in a boarded up room in the family home is shown as a nightmarish event – at least until she comes out the other side and croaks ‘group hug’. As for a sword-wielding school bully, he just wants to show off his skills with the blade.

For a series with so much going on, it’s surprising how little forward momentum the story has. Opening with a dramatic highpoint then cutting back in time is a surefire sign that someone in production realised there wasn’t much going on early to keep the audience interested; if you’re waiting for events to reach that (impressive) opening, you’ll still be waiting after the end of the first episode.

Likewise, the other big visceral moment of the first episode – Frankie’s detox – is a flashback. It’s gruelling, but there’s no real tension; we already know she gets clean, and the fear that maybe she’s using again is more about Eli than her. Across the seven episodes there’s no shortage of big scenes (Eli loses a finger to crime; to see his mum, he’ll have to break into a prison), but the stakes are largely settled. Eli’s a good kid, you don’t need to worry about him.

Boy Swallows Universe has a lot going for it, but the strongest elements are the ones pretty much every Australian prestige drama gets right. The performances are strong across the board (Cameron is especially impressive), and there’s plenty of star power (Simon Baker and Anthony LaPaglia appear in later episodes). The production design nails the retro atmosphere, the direction is slick and the memorable soundtrack is money well spent.

But it has that in common with almost every Australian drama. Stripped of Dalton’s memorable prose, the story struggles to find its footing. Coming-of-age dramas work by having childish illusions stripped away, but here Eli is seeing things clearly from the start. If only he could have seen a way to make this adaptation more compelling.

All seven episodes of Boy Swallows Universe are streaming now on Netflix.

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.