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Journey to the sea and beyond

Daniel Radcliffe plays one of four Australian orphans on a holiday in 'December Boys,' a gentle and pleasing coming-of-age story.

September 14, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

A sweet end-of-summer respite from Down Under, "December Boys" is a nostalgia-driven coming-of-age drama about four Catholic orphans from the outback given a seaside reprieve from the nuns and heat. A nicely wrought film of modest ambitions, it also marks the first lead film role beyond Harry Potter for young Daniel Radcliffe.

The popular adolescent wizard, who by all accounts acquitted himself well in London this year in a West End production of "Equus," heads a quartet of likable lads playing the title characters. United by their lack of parents and a common birth month, the boys find those bonds tested when they arrive at the home of their hosts, a retired chief petty officer, Bandy (Jack Thompson), and his wife, Skipper (Kris McQuade), situated in a secluded cove.

Roughly set in the 1960s (but with a soundtrack that includes songs from a bit later), the film was adapted by Marc Rosenberg from Michael Noonan's popular novel. Being Australia's summer, the holiday covers Christmas, and the kids frolic in the surf and sand and mingle with the cove's colorful inhabitants.

The youngest December boy, Misty (Lee Cormie), is a sensitive, bespectacled kid whose middle-aged self (Max Cullen) narrates the film in flashback. Spit (James Fraser) and Spark (Christian Byers), the middle boys, are adventurous types prone to sneaking smokes and perusing lingerie ads in magazines. Maps (Radcliffe) is the group's ringleader and, as the oldest, is the most aware that their chances of being adopted decrease with each passing year.

Misty overhears that a local childless couple, Teresa (Victoria Hill) and her motorcyclist husband (Sullivan Stapleton), are considering adoption, leading him, Spit and Spark to compete with one another for their attention. Maps is resolved to enjoy the rare holiday at the beach and finish out his days at the orphanage.

Into this paradise comes an apple-biting free-spirit named Lucy, who does more to rock Maps' little world than simply play him some Creedence Clearwater Revival on her phonograph. Radcliffe is excellent as the slightly awkward teen who senses a growing distance between himself and his mates. Director Rod Hardy elicits strong performances from the entire cast, but Radcliffe and Cormie bear the real emotional weight of the storytelling. Less successful are some overtly literary elements such as a wild stallion, an old fisherman named Shellback and his pursuit of Henry, a fish of mythic proportions, and Misty's visions of Our Lady that, while adding some fantasy and whimsy, don't entirely mesh with the rest of the film's tone.

"December Boys" is a refreshingly gentle treatment of familiar themes such as the inevitability of change, the dashing of youthful illusions and mutability of family. Enhanced by an exotic locale, the movie overcomes a well-trodden narrative path and unflinchingly brandishes its sentimentality as it stakes out its crowd-pleasing territory.


"December Boys." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, nudity, underage drinking and smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. At Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; AMC Century 15, Century City Shopping Center, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A., (310) 289-4AMC.

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