Although I enjoyed Rod Hardy’s December Boys, which was adapted for the screen by Marc Rosenberg from a novel by Michael Noonan, it reminded me of the bright, multi-colored houses that many Australians favor. For a foreigner, there’s just too much going on for it to be quite satisfying artistically. But if you could strip away the many inessential, subsidiary dramas, you might find a rather touching paean to Aussie-style mate-ship.
Four boys from St. Greg’s orphanage — Maps (Daniel Radcliffe), Spit (James Fraser), Spark (Christian Byers) and Misty (Lee Cormie) — form a tight bond because their birthdays are all in December. When someone makes a benefaction to the orphanage, the four are sent together in their birthday month for a Christmas holiday by the sea. St. Greg’s is situated somewhere in the desert outback, far from the ocean, and the boys are excited to be going to the seaside. There, they are put up at the ramshackle home of eccentric but lovable Bandy (Jack Thompson), an ex-chief petty officer in the Navy, and his wife, whom he calls — and defers to as — The Skipper (Kris McQuade). While there, they are befriended by two neighbors, Fearless (Sullivan Stapleton), a glamorous trick motorcyclist in the circus, and his beautiful French wife, Teresa (Victoria Hill). Soon they learn that this childless couple is thinking about adopting one of them, and their competition to be the chosen one threatens to destroy their friendship.
If Mr. Hardy and his writers had left it at that, I think this would have been a better movie. The gorgeous South Australian seaside backdrop — it was shot on location at Kangaroo Island — would have been able to do more of the work. Instead it and the main story tend to get crowded out by all of the other things that are making demands on our attention. For example:
* The boys discover that the Skipper is dying of cancer, and for a while they believe her actually to be dead. Their job is to try to cheer her up.
* Maps’s coming-of-age makes up a big subsidiary chunk of the film, especially when he has his first sexual experience with Lucy (Teresa Palmer), a beautiful girl from the village — who then leaves town to live with her father a continent away.
* Fearless and Teresa’s back-story is gone into in order to explain (sort of) why they can’t have children — and to spark off a misunderstanding that produces an angry flare-up by Maps.
* Spark tries to catch the giant fish called Henry that one of the villagers, Shellback (Ralph Cotterill), has been trying to catch for years, and so incurs the old man’s resentment.
* Maps thinks he might have a vocation to the priesthood and wonders if it is possible not to answer the call.
* Teresa tells of how the wild horse that they see running over the dunes and along the beach is said to catch fish which it feeds to the village cats. Though she has never seen this done, she believes it happens. “I believe in lots of things I can’t see,” she says.
As that last example suggests, there are symbolic dimensions to many of these extras, as we might call them, and in addition there are visions of Our Lady and of cartwheeling nuns to liven things up still further. I find this soap opera-like plethora of drama and undirected emotional energy flaring off in all directions rather fatiguing, though at any given moment the film is absorbing and, at times, even moving.
There’s another problem, however. The re-affirmation in the end that a bloke’s solidarity with his mates is the most important thing in life seems to me to strike a false note in the context — though of course I’m not Australian. This is really a variation on a familiar Hollywood theme of recent years, the quest for alternatives to family life — especially among young coevals who like the idea of freedom from adult expectations. Important as friendship undoubtedly is, it just isn’t a substitute for family and never can be.
There’s a strong period feel to December Boys that for people of a certain age will add to its evocative quality. It can be dated by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” released in 1970, which plays a role in Maps and Lucy’s courtship. But the rest of the picture has the look (and the innocence) of the early 1960s. Perhaps the Australian ’60s took longer to turn into the ’70s than the American ones did. I also give the film-makers credit for their respectful attitude towards the church. Father Scully (Frank Gallacher) and the sisters of St. Greg’s who hover about on the periphery are not very important characters, but we should probably be grateful for that. At least they’re not pedophiles and child-abusers. And the subject of Maps’s vocation is treated seriously.