With "December Boys," Daniel Radcliffe receives his first major film role outside of the "Harry Potter" series that has made him a household name. Taking on this new project is a smart choice for himfor one, it's a small indie movie vs. the mega-budgeted boy wizard picturesand, along with his recent London stage debut in "Equus," a progressive stepping stone toward proving his abilities as a more mature, adult actor rather than the child most viewers still see him as. Attention to parents of single-digit Radcliffe fans, though: don't let his mere participation fool you. Despite the PG-13 rating (the same as the last two "Harry Potter" entries), "December Boys" is not a sugarcoated portrayal of adolescence. It is unusually racy, complete with nudity (male and female) and sexual situations, as well as underage smoking and drinking. For older audiences, however, the film is an absorbing, gentle slice-of-life, light on plot but heavy on smaller moments of keen human interaction and observation.
In a Catholic orphanage in the early-1970s Outback lives four parentless best friends, nicknamed "December Boys" because of their shared birth month. As a gift for each of them on their birthday, the teenage Maps (Daniel Radcliffe) and younger Misty (Lee Cormie), Sparks (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser) are sent on holiday to stay with a stuffy but kind middle-aged couple, Bandy McAnsh (James Thompson) and Mrs. McAnsh (Kris McQuade), off the coast of South Australia. Surrounded by idyllic rolling hills, white sand and endless ocean, the four are in heaven, thankful to get away from the place they've called home almost all their lives.
When a nice neighbor couple, professional stunt motorcyclist Fearless (Sullivan Stapleton) and wife Teresa (Victoria Hill), are overheard discussing adoption, Misty, Sparks and Spit suddenly spot a new chance for getting the parents they've always yearned for. Meanwhile, Maps, old enough to know he has long since passed the age where adoption is possible, sets his sights on the attractively enigmatic Lucy (Teresa Palmer). Their romance turns out to be Maps' inaugural experience with the opposite sex and the sometimes torturous pangs of young love.
Based on the novel by Michael Noonan, "December Boys" is narrated by a grown-up Misty (Max Cullen) as he looks back on the cherished times he and his friends spent together before ultimately coming-of-age and going their separate ways. The epilogue, in which elderly versions of the characters reunite, feels tacked-on but does offer a slight payoff to having a voice-over running through the rest of the film. What is a bigger problem is the confusing timeline. The film is set sometime in the '70s (this is gauged by the use of the 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival classic, "Who'll Stop the Rain," during a couple key moments), which is inconsistent with the present-day ending where the children are miraculously around seventy years old. Shouldn't they only be in their late-forties, tops? It's a glaring anachronistic error, but one that is rather superfluous to the heart of the film.
For a large chunk of "December Boys," director Rod Hardy succeeds in capturing a nostalgic, earnest feel that represents that awkward but exhilarating time between childhood and adulthood. In this way, it's reminiscent of the great television series, "The Wonder Years," 1985's lovely "My American Cousin," and perhaps 1986's "Stand by Me," without actually equaling any of these. The plot itself is shrug-worthy, and the friendships between Maps, Misty, Sparks and Spit aren't developed enough for one to believe in the unbreakable bond they supposedly share. Nonetheless, the movie sweeps the viewer up in glorious vistas of the rocky Australian coast, courtesy of cinematographer David Connell, and individual moments of understated poignance and beauty that are better than the whole. That little happens in the way of outward story and conflict and yet the proceedings remain as fascinating as they do is a testament to director Hardy's disciplined, just-right touch.
Despite his character of Misty being the narrator, the likable but unexciting Lee Cormie (2003's "Darkness Falls
") is but a footnote next to Daniel Radcliffe (2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
"). Indeed, Radcliffe will be the star attraction for anyone going to see the picture, and the actor holds up his end of the bargain by exhibiting strong screen presence and a firm handle on his role as Maps. His relationship with Lucy, rather than his relationship with the other orphans, is the resonating glue that holds everything together. Teresa Palmer (2006's "The Grudge 2
") is enchanting as Lucy, alternately innocent, sensual and soulful, and she and Radcliffe's chemistry together is electric, no more so than during a standout scene played to the aforementioned tune, "Who'll Stop the Rain." Their romance, powerful yet destined to be short-lived, is fraught with all of the joys and pitfalls and lingering lifelong memories that come with one's first love. As Sparks and Spit, Christian Byers and James Fraser are natural little actors, but their roles are undernourished and practically interchangeable in comparison to the attention lended to Cormie's Misty and Radcliffe's Maps.
More affecting in spurts than in its entirety, "December Boys" still has enough going for it to be a pleasant, even winning dramedy with an invaluable ring of truth at its center. Director Rod Hardy and first-time screenwriter Marc Rosenberg have trouble sticking the landing, especially with a few dishonest character reactions and an unnecessary final scene that lays it on too thick for comfort. Before these climactic mishaps, "December Boys" endears precisely because it doesn't appear to be trying too hard. There is an unpushy, bittersweet consistency to the film's tone and emotions that viewerseven those who weren't yet born in the '60s and '70swill find easy to empathize with and relate to.