Using an unexplained death to examine small town politics is a well-established trope. On the small screen it’s paid dividends in the likes of Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars and, more recently, Riverdale and Big Little Lies. But why doesn’t it seem to work in Jasper Jones?
I think the difference in scope between television and film is a factor. The aforementioned series avoided their macabre framing devices overbalancing the setting through the sheer benefit of time. Jasper Jones begins with the death of a woman – found hanging from a tree by the titular character (Aaron L. McGrath) and his friend Charlie (Levi Miller) – but soon branches out into an examination of secrets and intolerance in 1960s small town Australia. But Shaun Grant’s screenplay, adapted from Craig Silvey’s novel, struggles to believably cover these broad dramatic elements.
Then there’s basic irrelevance of Charlie to the story. He’s apparently the protagonist, but his primary role is to play witness to other people’s drama (the classic “white person as Trojan Horse” narrative device). Murder-mystery-meets-small-town-politics can work on the big screen. Look at Mystery Road and Goldstone. But the combination of an over-laden plot and an underdeveloped protagonist makes Jasper Jones a comparative disappointment.