Daniel Radcliffe hasn’t exactly taken a huge leap in December Boys, his first cinematic turn outside of the Harry Potter franchise. He’s gone from playing a British orphan to an Australian one. Radcliffe isn’t the first Potter kid to try on a new character; Rupert Grint costarred in 2006’s Driving Lessons. And both films are dull, treacly affairs that, if not for their value as trivia, won’t likely be remembered at all.
Radcliffe plays Maps, the eldest of four friends who live in an outback orphanage in the 1960s. They share December birthdays, and when the orphanage gets an unexpected donation, the staff decides to send them on a holiday to “a special place on the sea.” They’ll be heading off to Lady Star Cove, an idyllic spot whose beaches are blindingly white and laced with rock formations that are far more interesting than the movie itself. The boys are naturally excited, even though it turns out that the couple they’re staying with, Bandy McAnsh (Jack Thompson) and his wife, “the Skipper” (Kris McQuade), are as religious and strict as the orphanage’s nuns.
Though Radcliffe would seem to be a main draw for the film, Maps isn’t terribly significant. Considering that the actor can’t seem to shake the stiffness that is adequately disguised by all the bells and whistles of the Potter films, it’s a blessing in disguise. His fellow December boys are just as bland, with nicknames instead of personalities. Sparks (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser) hardly register at all. The clichéd narration, though, tells us that we’re supposed to focus on Misty (Lee Cormie), a freckled kid with glasses who’s known for crying and really, really wants to be adopted. “They say the best place to start is at the beginning,” says Max Cullen, who later appears as the adult Misty. He goes on to say the trip “was like destiny.”
A lot of similarly trite pronouncements follow, but you never get a firm grasp of what’s going to happen or whose life is going to be altered in Lady Star Cove. And then the reason becomes clear: there’s just not much of a story in this script, based on a Michael Noonan novel and written by Marc Rosenberg (whose previous film is a succubus-themed thriller from 1995 called Serpent’s Lair). Instead, it’s a series of loosely connected moments of forced wonder and adolescent eye-opening as the boys run around the beach during the day and sneak cigarettes at night. Director Rod Hardy isn’t exactly subtle in his presentation of them: Look, a wild horse! It’s keeping a Frenchwoman company as she swims topless! And there’s Lucy, that sultry blond teenager who keeps staring, pillowy lips parted, at Maps!
Most of the boys’ golly-gee experiences involve sneaking peaks at women, though the most exciting development during the trip is a conversation Misty overhears between the town’s local daredevil, “Fearless” (Sullivan Stapleton), and a priest. Fearless admits frustration that he and his wife, the aforementioned skinnydipper, Teresa (Victoria Hill), can’t have children. The minister suggests adoption. Misty’s eyes light up, and the next day he’s Dippity Do-ing his hair and serving the McAnshes breakfast to prove he’s a catch.
There’s a religious undercurrent here -– Misty’s a Virgin Mary fan –- but it’s often weirdly served up as a source of gentle humor, such as when Misty fantasizes about the orphanage’s nuns telling him he’s been adopted… and then cart-wheeling away toward the surf. Of course, no lessons would be learned if all the good stuff weren’t balanced out with some bad, and the boys get tastes of death and disappointment as well. But just like its tries at whimsy fall flat, the film’s serious developments are too contrived and predictable to be affecting.
Especially unfortunate are Radcliffe’s big calls to emote. Although his go-to expression, gaping, may be an appropriate reaction as Maps gets to know the supremely confident Lucy (Teresa Palmer), the script doesn’t do the actor any favors by asking him to yell out lines like “Stop lying!” under stupid circumstances near the film’s end. As eager as Radcliffe probably is to get out of Harry’s shadow, it wasn’t a great career move to pick a project that completely lacks magic.