By Aleena Flack

This piece first appeared as a featured article in volume 95, issue one of Pelican. You can view our print archive here.

Trigger warning: This article discusses violence and substance abuse.

The limited series Boy Swallows Universe (2024) hit Netflix on 11 January and makes a stellar addition to Australian cinema. Eli Bell (Felix Cameron) is a teen with a family from the wrong side of the tracks; the series being adapted from the 2018 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Australian author, Trent Dalton.

Eli’s authentic narration style throws the audience into a whirlpool of emotions, with his story set against the crime-infiltrated suburban streets of 1980s Brisbane. He has big boots to fill. Eli’s neighbours are criminals: his mother (Frances) is a recovering drug addict, his stepdad (Lyle) is a dealer, his estranged father (Robert) is an alcoholic, and his older brother (Gus) hasn’t spoken a word since the age of seven.

The brothers communicate through words that Gus traces out in the air with his finger—a lot of it cannot be taken literally—but Eli is convinced that Gus tells the future. Upon seeing a blue wren flying nearby, Gus writes out for Eli, “Your End is a Dead Blue Wren” and comments on Eli’s loud yawn with the captivating phrase, “Boy Swallows Universe.” Gus later draws colourful pictures of the pair floating through space in a car, as they watch the Earth disappear behind them. It left me questioning whether this event that Gus recounts is entirely fictional or if these images are reflections of him and Eli’s joint traumatic past.

I was utterly blown away by the sheer amount of talent present in this series. Cameron portrays young Eli with intricate detail, making me truly believe that he is a teen living in suburbs surrounded by crime. Lee Tiger Halley – from Fremantle, WA – plays Eli’s brother. He is a familiar face to many after being featured on the front cover page of the 2020 Craig Silvey novel, Honeybee. Lee Tiger Halley’s acting is impressive as the role of Gus has very minimal dialogue in early episodes compared to other characters in the series, so he conveys a lot with little.

Sophie Wilde, from Sydney, is another recognisable actor. She plays reporter Caitlyn Spies, who Eli watches from home on the news and later befriends. The Australian horror film, Talk to Me (2023) is where Sophie Wilde recently starred, so it was only natural that she was cast in Boy Swallows Universe due to her phenomenal previous performance. Her role as Caitlyn Spies is supporting in the beginning but grows more prominent in the final episodes of the series and it allows the audience more screen time with her character.

Combined, the characters in Boy Swallows Universe create riveting dynamics. Eli is pulled between what is morally right and what will benefit those he needs to protect. The cycle of violence is prevalent in the series, and I found it difficult to watch on account of the disturbing displays of domestic violence incidents, ongoing child neglect and abuse, and gruesome fight scenes linked to gang drug wars. Other heavy issues portrayed are excessive alcohol and drug use, lengthy parental incarceration, and examples of debilitating mental illness. Despite the innocence that follows child narration, Boy Swallows Universe is still rated MA 15+ and remains intended for a mature audience. Dalton based the original novel on his own childhood experiences and real-life events, which further puts the storyline into perspective. It is not the sort of series to binge, rather to watch over multiple days and focus on fully understanding the events on screen.

The series emits poignant reminders of the coming-of-age film Boyhood (2014), but with the addition of cruel and gut-wrenching twists. My attention was held from start to finish, regardless. At no point did I feel the series could have been made shorter and the pacing of the source novel fits well into a screen adaptation. It was a pleasure to watch Eli grow up and discover his place in the world, defying the stereotypes of his unstable upbringing.

Eli’s story is a message of hope that his family will survive the mess that encases them. Each family member repeats the same words of reassurance, “Things are gonna get so good, you’ll forget they were ever bad.” It is comforting to see that in devastating times there are still moments of unison. In the ending scene, Eli recounts the events of his life: “Man Finds Mojo, Mum Gets Life, Artist Finds Voice… Boy Swallows Universe.” I think Eli about summed the series up!

This pure pot of gold received a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 82% score on IMDb, and holds an 86% score on Google Reviews. There are many great series out there now, all equally deserving of praise, but push Boy Swallows Universe to the top of your watch list, it’s worth every minute.

5/5 Pelicans

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