8 February 2024

Pick of the Flicks – Boy Swallows Universe

| Rama Gaind
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boy and man in truck in movie scene

Felix Cameron plays the role of young Eli Bell and Bryan Brown is Slim Halliday in Boy Swallows Universe. Photo: Supplied.

An Australian coming-of-age, seven-part television series, Boy Swallows Universe features family drama and love, crime, tension and the harsh realities of adult life.

It revolves around a young boy growing up in 1980s Brisbane, having a rather tough upbringing and constantly facing looming dangers that threaten his family.

Based on the best-selling 2018 semi-autobiographical novel by journalist Trent Dalton, it follows Eli Bell, a young boy faced with tough problems, including his mother, who lives with addiction, and a drug-dealing stepfather.

It’s 1985 in a dusty suburb in Brisbane. Middle-schooler Eli (Felix Cameron, Penguin Bloom) and his older brother, Gus (Lee Tiger Halley, Crazy Fun Park), live in a working-class neighborhood with their mum, Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin, Babylon, Transfusion) and their stepdad, Lyle Orlik (Travis Fimmel, Raised by Wolves, Vikings).

Eli is just trying to make the best of the situation and aiming to get by, but the school bullies and his stepdad don’t make it easy. At school, Eli’s pressured into troublemaking, and at home he’s anxious to find out whether Lyle’s fallen back into dealing heroin. As he investigates what stepdad is really up to (fearing that his mother, an addict, has begun using again), he gets mixed up in the criminal underbelly of the town.

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Lyle means well as he is always trying to do what he thinks is best for his family, even though sometimes it might be an odd direction that he takes.

Boy Swallows Universe follows Eli (a role also played by Auden Ryan, at age six, and Zac Burgess, at 17) through his dark, but often incredible teenage years as he staggers towards adulthood. It’s basically a story about a boy’s love for his mum.

Eli is mentored by a warm-hearted convicted felon, Slim Halliday, played by Bryan Brown (Cocktail, Gods of Egypt). Halliday is a character based on a real person. Arthur ”Slim” Halliday, a convicted murderer, was known as the Houdini of Boggo Road for his notorious escapes from Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol.

Dalton grew up with Halliday, whom he looked up to as a father figure. According to Brown, during his “last term” Slim’s really thinking, ‘I want to contribute in some bloody way, and here’s a couple of kids, and maybe that’s the answer’.”

Other impressive cast members include Simon Baker (The Mentalist, Breath) as Robert Bell, Gus and Eli’s father. Baker thought it was an interesting hook to get into Robert’s character and a good challenge to understand how a person like that can exist.

Sophie Wilde (Everything Now, Talk to Me) as Caitlyn Spies is a news reporter. Anthony LaPaglia (Without a Trace, Florida Man) is Tytus Broz, who owns the prosthetics factory where Lyle works. Christopher James Baker (Ozark, True Detective) is Ivan Kroll, Tytus’s right-hand man, and Deborah Mailman (Offspring, 2067) plays Poppy Birkbeck, a guidance counsellor.

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One of the producers of the series, Troy Lum, said the “tone of the book was very unique, and whenever we felt like we were drifting from that tone, we just thought about Trent as a person”.

“His spirit, his positivity, his love of life, his ability to see the positive in everything that he’s been through,” Lum said.

While the series and book are fictionalised, Boy Swallows Universe is a joyous manifestation of bleak times. Dalton’s book is also inseparably linked to 1980s Brisbane. He drops the names of Queensland areas in his novel, including the Sunshine Coast, Darra, the Gold Coast hinterland, Ferny Grove, Springbrook Falls, Yatala, Oxley, Wacol, Inala, The Gap, Corinda and Yeerongpilly. There’s a reason for declaring them, because these are the places in the South-East that shaped the precocious 13-year-old protagonist.

Boy Swallows Universe, directed by Bharat Nalluri, Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kim Mordaunt, is streaming on Netflix.

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