'December Boys': Daniel Radcliffe's Scoring Opportunity

Not so magical: The
Not so magical: The "Harry Potter" star, left, plays an orphaned teen on the cusp of sexual initiation. (By Lisa Tomasetti -- Warner Independent Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

You're Daniel Radcliffe and you've become virtually synonymous with Harry Potter, the fictional magician you played in five -- eventually to be seven -- blockbuster hits. But you want to move on. You want to show the world what you can do without wand, cape or Quidditch broom. But how?

If you're Radcliffe, you throw off your clothes and perform to packed houses on the London stage as the traumatized teenager in Peter Shaffer's "Equus." You draw rave reviews.

Next move? A high-profile movie role opposite a major star? No, you want to prove your art-house cred. So you take a leading part in "December Boys," an Australian movie about a 17-year-old orphan who loses his virginity. You play Maps, the oldest of four parentless teenagers sent to the beach one memorable summer in the 1960s. Sounds good. It'll show everyone you're not limited to Harry and have moved on to serious acting. Right?

Well, yes and no -- mostly no. Let's give the sometime wiz his due: There's nothing wrong with Radcliffe's performance, it's the project he chose that blows his transition into deeper filmdom. Not even Brando at his greatest (teenage or otherwise) could save "December Boys" from its uneven tone, saccharine sentiments and moribund cliches. And not even the loss of Radcliffe's on-screen virginity -- mothers of Harry fans, shield your children's eyes! -- can juice up this picturesque but banal memoir.

Directed by TV journeyman director Rod Hardy (whose highest-profile film feature was a 1997 adaptation of "Robinson Crusoe" starring Pierce Brosnan), the movie feels like a rehash of every coming-of-age film ever made. As Maps and his three pals spend their days on a South Australian beach -- where their nun-run orphanage has dispatched them for a Christmas sojourn -- the filmmakers leave no hackneyed conceit alone.

The boys see a Frenchwoman (Victoria Hill) running half naked and Bo Derek-like toward them. (She'll be lathering them with suntan lotion soon enough.) They see the same woman undressing -- conveniently -- before an open window. Maps has his first sexual and romantic experience, courtesy of a comely lass (Teresa Palmer) who functions purely as an archetypal usher. Fellow orphan Misty (Lee Cormie), also the narrator, has glowing visions of benevolent nuns guiding him in life. And, for no apparent reason other than the movie's desire for magic realism, the boys encounter a horse that likes to catch fish in the surf.

In case we haven't appreciated how wondrous all these episodes are, Hardy suffuses them with a tinkly, elegiac piano score, and punctuates them with aerial shots of this beautiful corner of the world.

Even if these and other cliches felt authentic, the story structure is at cross purposes. "December Boys," adapted from Michael Noonan's young-adult novel, doesn't know if it's the sweet, innocent memoir of Misty or Maps's sweaty, sensual and hairy-legged evolution. Opting for both approaches certainly isn't the answer.

As he has demonstrated with progressive success in the "Harry Potter" movies, Radcliffe is good at showing the clumsiness and vulnerability of a boy advancing rapidly into manhood. But thus far, at least, he lacks the maturity to give it greater dimension. The same can be said for filmmakers Hardy and screenwriter Marc Rosenberg, who squander a gilt opportunity to evoke the inner world of boys, particularly unwanted ones who must rely on their own emotional resources, and each other, for their happiness. Why this particular summer was so special to Misty, Maps or us in the audience is lost in all that mystical sunshine.

December Boys (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for nudity, teenage smoking and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company