February 2024


‘Boy Swallows Universe’

By Tara Kenny
Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’
The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

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.

Tara Kenny

Tara Kenny is a culture writer and The Monthly’s television critic. Online, she is @slurpette.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

In This Issue

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, in rolled sleeves standing in front of Hansard library

After robodebt: Restoring trust in government integrity and accountability

The attorney-general makes the case for reforms to Australia’s institutional checks and balances

watercolour and pencil drawing of plains-wanderers

Notes on a disappearance

Urban spaces, camouflage and the fate of the plains-wanderer

Grace Tame running in the 2023 Bruny Island Ultra Marathon

Running out of trouble

How long-distance running changed the life of the former Australian of the Year (and earnt her a record win in an ultramarathon)

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality