Journalist Trent Dalton’s 2018 semi-autobiographical debut novel captivated readers with its colourful rendering of the Bell family, a dysfunctional clan of Aussie battlers struggling and mainly failing to stay above water, told from the plucky, frequently confused perspective of 12-year-old Eli. The book achieved dual critical and commercial success, sweeping local literary awards and selling more than a million copies by appealing to a broad audience. As one blogger put it: “This book truly has the power to unite people, especially men who usually don’t read.” A novel for people who don’t read is surely ripe for television adaptation, and Boy Swallows Universe is now a seven-part Netflix drama, written by John Collee, and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, Kim Mordaunt and Bharat Nalluri.
No matter how grim its content, Dalton’s writing is defined by a relentless Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah’s-couch level optimism. He is a man who once conducted book research by perching on a street corner with a typewriter and a sign reading “sentimental writer collecting love stories”. That positivity carries over to the small-screen telling of Boy Swallows Universe in its loving, dignified depiction of characters living on the fringes of suburban Brisbane in the 1980s. While Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin) has a weakness for hard drugs and highly questionable men, her ferocious love for her kids – Eli (Felix Cameron and, in later episodes, Zac Burgess) and his wise older brother Gus (Lee Tiger Halley) – never wavers. Her boyfriend, Lyle (Travis Fimmel), makes dodgy, foolish decisions that endanger the family’s safety, but we understand that he’s driven by a genuine desire to provide them with a better life. The boys’ biological father, Robert (Simon Baker), is an agoraphobic alcoholic who may or may not have once purposely harmed his sons in a harrowing, Robert Farquharson-esque incident, but he’s also incredibly well-read and warm-hearted (when he’s sober). While society is so often quick to condemn and discard people like Frankie, Lyle and Robert, here their lives matter, even if they don’t always make sense.
Dalton fashioned Eli as a more ballsy version of his childhood self, who is able to do things the author only dreamt of as a young man. At times, his avatar’s superhuman courage and precocious negotiation skills will elicit eye-rolls; in one scene, Eli attempts to discourage a battle between two machete-wielding Vietnamese drug gangs by standing between them to deliver a spiel about how, given we’re all foreigners in Australia who have only adopted this place as home, they should be able to resolve their issues “with a sit down in the front yard for a beer and a yarn”. This episode evokes Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram – another novel turned TV show concerned with crims and their unorthodox honour codes – in which the protagonist, also based on the book’s author, is always performing unlikely heroic feats.
Eli’s behaviour is not the only outlandish aspect of Boy Swallows Universe, with gritty criminal and domestic drama interspersed with magical realism and some outright bonkers plot points. While these flourishes are clearly meant to evoke a sense of childlike wonder and imagination, they are often uneven and convoluted, which makes it difficult to follow the narrative thread or to know where to pay attention. By its conclusion, Boy Swallows Universe has veered away from the arresting human story at its core and into tropey Young Adult fantasy territory, complete with cartoon villains and saccharine romance. While the series has real heart, aided by tender, endearing lead performances, a rousing Oz rock soundtrack, and nostalgic recreations of the Vietnamese banquet halls and ramshackle school fetes of old-school Brisbane, in attempting to encapsulate the entire cosmos, Boy Swallows Universe ultimately falls short.
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