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Refinery29: Trent Dalton & Phoebe Tonkin On Portraying Addiction In Boy Swallows Universe

Content warning: This article discusses themes that might be distressing to some readers, including domestic violence and addiction.

Mild spoilers ahead. If there’s one book that has managed to embed itself into the Australian cultural zeitgeist, it’s Boy Swallows Universe. Now a seven-part Netflix series, the impact of this epic coming-of-age story will extend beyond our shores, propelling the lives of the Australian working class to the global stage.

The television show, faithfully adapted from the best-selling novel by Trent Dalton, follows 12-year-old Eli Bell (played by the phenomenal duo Felix Cameron and Zac Burgess), a precocious and curious kid from Brisbane’s outer suburbs who is forced to navigate a far too difficult life, far too young.

The show is fronted by a stellar all-Australian cast, including Simon Baker as Eli’s father Robert, who has a debilitating fear of leaving his house and an ongoing struggle with alcohol. Travis Fimmel leads a convincing and charming performance as Eli’s heroin-dealing stepfather, Lyle. Lee Tiger Halley plays his brother Gus, a selective mute with a penchant for occasional clairvoyance. Bryan Brown excels as the real-life criminal Slim Halliday who regularly babysits the boys (naturally). And finally, Phoebe Tonkin offers an emotional performance as Eli’s mother Frankie, a victim of intergenerational trauma and the repercussions it brings. The series also features some phenomenal performances from Deborah Mailman, Sophie Wilde, Haiha Le, Eloise Rothfield, Millie Donaldson, and First Nations rapper, Briggs.

But while this might sound like a bit farfetched for all this to happen to one person, the novel Boy Swallows Universe is a semi-autobiographical retelling of Walkley Award-winning journalist and author Trent Dalton’s childhood, who saw his parents struggle with heroin addiction and dealing, alcoholism and domestic violence, with his mother eventually ending up in jail.

For Dalton, the Netflix iteration of the show is understandably an emotional journey. Described as the “anchor” of the series, he was heavily involved in the production and bringing the story to life — in a way, reliving it. Walking onto the set means that he’s confronted with some of the most traumatic parts of his childhood. The house looks like the one he grew up in, a 12-year-old boy acts in the same way he did in the 80s, and he meets an avatar of his mother, who he loves beyond belief. When the author finally watched the series on TV for the first time with his family and his mother, he tells Refinery29 Australia that it was “one of the most emotional eight hours of our lives.”

Describing the series as emotional is an understatement. At many points through the seven-episode series, it can be difficult to watch. One episode in particular depicts the time his mother went through withdrawal from heroin, locked in a room that is soon strewn with vomit, while the two young boys sat on the other side of the door, waiting for her to come out ‘clean’.

But while it might seem confronting to watch some of the most traumatic parts of your childhood reenacted on screen, Dalton says that ultimately, making the show offered him an opportunity to understand his mother.

“Mum was able to pause the TV and go, ‘Well, here’s what was going on when I was detoxing from heroin’, ‘That’s what it felt like to be in prison’. It was the most healing, cathartic, emotional, and beautiful thing,” he tells Refinery29 Australia.

When consulting his mother about her portrayal on the show, he says that the real-life Frankie Bell only gave him one explicit instruction: “Do not shy away from the darkness”. Dalton explains that it was key for him to honour the darkness in her life, especially in her experiences with domestic abuse. “We must show what it actually means for a mum to be in a four-walled room that you can’t escape from with a bloke who’s stronger, angry, and wants to ruin your life,” Dalton says.

I definitely wanted to acknowledge that there are many phases to addiction. At the end of the day, Frankie wants to just be a good mum. She doesn’t always do that perfectly, but she’s just trying her best at all times with what she has.

Much of the emotion in the series comes from Phoebe Tonkin. While she’s best known for her roles in H20: Just Add Water and The Vampire Diaries, Tonkin’s performance in Boy Swallows Universe will undoubtedly shift how she’s viewed as an actor, as she offers a gripping, emotional, and heartwrenching portrayal of Dalton’s mum.

“I definitely wanted to acknowledge that there are many phases to addiction,” Tonkin tells Refinery29 Australia. “At the end of the day, Frankie wants to just be a good mum. She doesn’t always do that perfectly, but she’s just trying her best at all times with what she has.”

“She loves her kids and all she wants is a normal family and a normal upbringing for her children because she didn’t have one herself necessarily,” Tonkin says of her character. “I just wanted to honour the pain and trauma that that someone that is dealing with that sort of addiction is really facing.”

Given the story’s semi-autobiographical nature, it afforded the actors, including Tonkin, the unique opportunity to have face-to-face discussions with the story’s protagonists, including Trent Dalton and his mother.

“I did get to meet Trent’s mum and some of his other family members, including his daughters,” Tonkin explains. “Trent was just so forthcoming with anything we wanted to know about why he wrote the book or if we wanted to understand anything deeper than necessarily the script or the book.”

Dalton also recalled the real-life interaction between his mum and Tonkin, saying it’s clear that Tonkin has captured his mother’s essence. “She caught up with Mum and gave her a big hug,” he explains. “She wanted to even hang out with Mum over at Redcliffe for a while! I was like, you don’t have to do that. All you have to do is remember that she loves nothing more than her sons — and Phoebe really showed that.”

Later in the season, Dalton also watches as Simon Baker — who plays his late father, Robert — speaks on screen about the many regrets he has in life, fuelled by his alcoholism. “I was just weeping, I couldn’t stop,” Dalton says. “I looked at my oldest daughter and she was weeping… and I remember turning to her and I said, ‘Do you want me to stop it? Is it too sad?’ And then she wipes her face and she just grabs my hand and says, ‘No Dad, it’s not too sad. It’s too beautiful.”

This show is really beautiful because it acknowledges those really dark, heavy moments, and then shows that life does keep going and things do change. That things do get better.

Finding an authentic portrayal of addiction or abuse on screen is rare. Often, depictions either glamourise these issues, or swing to the opposite extreme, focusing entirely on the doom and gloom of it all, while neglecting the human behind the struggle. Instead, Boy Swallows Universe offers a faithful and emotional depiction of addiction without any of the frivolities, whilst still incorporating humour and most importantly, optimism.

Tonkin hopes that the show will be able to help people deal with the pain and trauma in their own lives. “This show is really beautiful because it acknowledges those really dark, heavy moments, and then shows that life does keep going and things do change. That things do get better,” she says. She references a key line in the show, spoken by the enigmatic Travis Fimmel: “Things will get so good, you’ll forget they were ever bad.”

And that’s the beauty of Boy Swallows Universe. While it’s relentlessly sad and haunting at times, it’s ultimately about overcoming hardship, and the importance of family. It’s a gentle shoulder to cry on for those who have experienced the darkest points in their life, but it’s simultaneously uplifting. What Trent Dalton and the Netflix adaption of Boy Swallows Universe have given us is a love letter to hope — and one of the best Australian TV shows that’s ever been made.

“I did it because I had some rocks I was carrying around and I needed to relinquish them,” Dalton said on his reasons for putting his story out there. “I never knew that by doing that, all these other people would come up and go, I’ve got those rocks too, and I’ll help you carry yours if you can help me carry mine.”

Published January 10, 2024
by Alexandra Koster