A coming-of-age tale adapted from Michael Noonan's novel, December Boys is primarily notable for providing Daniel Radcliffe with his first big-screen opportunity to prove himself more than just Harry Potter. Otherwise, it's a cloying, unremarkable affair. Rife with clichés and corniness, Rod Hardy's film concerns four orphans in the late '60s whose lives are oh-so-forever-changed when they're given a summertime break from their arid Australian Outback home and sent to vacation with a couple that lives by the sea. There, the goal of being chosen by foster parents is complicated by profound life lessons and, in the case of Radcliffe's virginal orphan Maps, sexual awakening at the hands of a blonde (Teresa Palmer) with a thing for Creedence Clearwater Revival. "I can teach you if you want," coos the teenage seductress, and the terrified/excited look on Radcliffe's face as he awaits entry into manhood has a vibrancy otherwise sorely absent from the proximate action. Combining the dewiness of The Cider House Rules with a few fantastical interludes seemingly culled from outtakes of Big Fish, it's a film with overwritten plotting and underwritten characters, often too content to simply work its audience over with a familiar, trite brand of adolescent nostalgia.
At this beachside idyll, Maps, Misty (Lee Cormie), Spit (James Fraser) and Spark (Christian Byers) find their friendship tested upon learning that the couple living next door to their cottage can't have children, and may want to adopt one of them. The possibility of being "saved" most fiercely consumes Misty, a devout kid who takes to sycophantically doting on the pair, a carnival motorcycle stuntman (Sullivan Stapleton) and his French wife (Victoria Hill). His yearning for family is the film's touchingly sentimental crux, complicated by the juxtaposition of the older Maps' angry disinterest in being adopted. Alas, December Boys can't leave well enough alone, tapping into genuine feelings of loneliness, acceptance and inclusion only to then embellish them with unneeded affectations. The off-putting directorial attempts to shamelessly tug at the heartstrings occur so frequently that empathy for these four comrades - dubbed the "December Boys" because of their shared birthday month - is muddied by indifference wrought from insistent emotional manipulation.
Female figures of maternal and erotic desire slowly rise from the gorgeous sea like goddesses, black stallions stomp about the water's edge looking to catch fish for a cat, a crotchety sailor waxes rhapsodic about a legendary fish of immense size, and the woman caring for the boys, Skipper (Kris McQuade), soon finds herself debilitated by cancer. Life and death, reality and myth, all swirl about in the golden sunlight, as do gratingly cutesy daydreaming sequences in which Misty imagines the orphanage's nuns congratulating him on finding new parents with energetic cartwheels. Along with the creaky narration by an adult Misty (looking back on these vital childhood events), it's these moments that most deleteriously interfere with December Boys' ability to plumb its characters' conflicted psyches, as they prove so writerly one can almost hear the click-click-click of screenwriter Marc Rosenberg's keyboard. Worse than the preciousness of these whimsicalities, however, is that they usurp time which would have been far better spent fleshing out the characters of not only nominal protagonists Maps and Misty, but also (and especially) Spark and Spit, who aren't developed beyond their defining nicknames.
Though not nearly as mature and subtle as his turn in the recent Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Radcliffe acquits himself admirably despite being relegated to stock brooding and signpost exclamations like "Everybody leaves!" December Boys, meanwhile, resorts to treacle with increasing gusto as it wends its way toward its aw-shucks ending. That the film ultimately resolves with one character's epiphany about the true definition of family is predictable yet tolerable given the narrative's intermittently sincere focus on youthful desires for belonging. The tacked-on modern-day reunion that caps things off, however, is egregiously excessive, with any pretense toward tender moderation finally, thoroughly cast aside in favor of uninhibited schmaltz in which the now-elderly friends run along the cove's picturesque seaside hills (just like when they were kids!), let loose with one last "December Boys!" cheer, and then stand and pose while senior citizen Misty gets teary-eyed in a close-up as calculated as that of the crying Native American in the iconic '70s "Keep America Beautiful" public service announcement.