“Boy Swallows Universe,” a seven-part drama based on the book by Trent Dalton, puts a youthful spin on the accidental-criminal subgenre, blending dreaminess and brutality to terrific if incomplete effect. The whole show is available now, on Netflix.
Our hero is Eli (Felix Cameron), who is both a very savvy and a very young 13 when the show begins. It’s the 1980s in Brisbane, Australia, and Eli lives with his older brother, Gus (Lee Tiger Halley, fantastic), who is selectively mute and can maybe predict the future; his mom, Frankie (Phoebe Tonkin), a recovering drug addict with good intentions but terrible taste in men; and his stepfather, Lyle (Travis Kimmel), a loving but scuzzy heroin dealer. Eli’s most important father figure and mentor is Slim (Bryan Brown), a career criminal famous for escaping from prison.
“Boy” is much more a story of violence and acceptance than a sweetheart coming-of-age show. Its most intriguing trick is that it does not so much evoke being 13 as it evokes remembering being 13, the mythologizing of one’s young life. Was there really so much free-floating wisdom available, or does it only seem that way now that you know what stuck?
After one catastrophic night lands Frankie in prison, Slim tries to comfort Eli. She’ll be home in four Christmases, he says. “I’ll be 17,” Eli chokes out, barely able to imagine being so grown up. When the show leaps forward those four years, we get a crushing sense of what’s been lost, for everyone.
Beachy vibes overlay a real depravity here, and Eli’s and Gus’s escapes into reverie and magical realism are coping mechanisms for lives filled with people who care about them but no one to care for them. Neglect — both the benign and the pernicious strains — and squalor shape a huge part of their lives, though as one classmate points out, they are loved, just imperfectly by imperfect people.
So much of this series is beautiful and surprising, blurring poppy capers with jarring blood baths, often in the same episode. Unfortunately, the finale is a bizarre letdown, leaving all the nuance and ache behind in favor of a denouement out of a Batman cartoon. But if you can tolerate a crash landing, and you like a fun soundtrack, a seedy underbelly and a poetic approach, watch this.