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December Boys

(Rod Hardy, Australia, 2007)


 


December Boys is a nostalgic experience, particularly for Australian viewers – and in more ways than one. It is the leisurely story of Catholic orphan boys Maps (Daniel Radcliffe), Misty (Lee Cormie), Spark (Christian Byers) and Spit (James Fraser) coming of age, mostly in summer and beachside. Since it unfolds in the late 1960s, there is a generous swag of Australian pop-rock classics of the era (by the likes of Hans Poulsen or The Easybeats) punched into the soundtrack at predictable moments (sandy frolics, etc). This is the defiantly local aspect of the project: songs that were rarely hits beyond Australian shores; arid outback and bright beach landscapes; the usual injection of vernacular phrases and homely cultural reference-points.

 

It is also a decided throwback to the way Australian films were made in the mainstream industry “renaissance” of the mid 1970s. Movies of that moment including The Mango Tree (1977) and Caddie (1976) set the tone and mode which suspicious critics labelled the “AFC genre” after the official body Australian Film Commission (even when the movies in question didn’t actually receive its funding!), and that Pauline Kael sarcastically blessed with a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” – in other words, comfortable, middlebrow, officially sanctioned films designed to offend no one, and to flatter the canons of good taste.

 

December Boys stages an odd and unlikely return to this style in almost every one of its details – not the least of which is the casting of Jack Thompson as lovable old codger Bandy McAnsh. It is episodic, with little sense of narrative urgency or drive – the single motor of the plot, the boys’ jostling to be adopted by the childless couple of Fearless (a daredevil circus performer played by Sullivan Stapleton) and his French wife Teresa (Victoria Hill), comes and goes listlessly. It is determinedly anti-melodramatic: elements such as the struggle of Mrs McAnsh (Kris McQuade) with cancer never reach their expected climax, and the curious running tale of mad old Shellback (Ralph Cotterill) – and the giant fish he dreams of catching – is a deliberately shaggy-dog affair, with a typically melancholic twist.

 

Much else that matters to proceedings – such as the circus accident that has rendered Teresa childless – is spoken about in hurried whispers, but never shown in flashback. The Catholic convent from which the boys begin – and where they sadly watch as other boys are adopted into new families – has nothing even slightly Gothic about it. And the throwaway ending – Misty’s decision to give up the new family he has worked hard to win for the sake of his circle of mates – expresses a frank longing for a never-to-be-disturbed status quo hat is familiar from the most conservative works of Australian cinema.

 

As a piece of filmmaking, too, December Boys doesn’t raise itself much above the mediocrity of 1975 – director Rod Hardy, who at least has the cult B movie Thirst (1979) to his credit, here appears to be channelling memories of The Summer of ’42 (1971), especially in the scenes devoted to teenage Lucy (Teresa Palmer) and Maps’ loss of virginity to her. The film takes the path of narrating its events through the child-perspective of Misty (although the voice is adult, allowing a present-day epilogue in the vein of Stand By Me [1986]), but tends to use this voice-over narration redundantly, to hammer home what is already obvious in the images – as in an early scene where the boys see one of their classmates adopted.

 

Clichés abound: the kids frolic along a beach or hang out of moving vehicles; a horse that wades into the shallow water to catch fish is a lame magic-realist element; the supposedly exotic-sexy Frenchwoman is glimpsed languidly showering; each pop song begins as a tinny diegetic insert (on a radio or gramophone) before flowering into a booming soundtrack accompaniment. The one potentially intriguing touch – Misty’s light-drenched visions of nuns and the Virgin Mary – swiftly becomes repetitive and unimaginative. But I will leave it to any brave viewer to eventually discover which of these young heroes eventually becomes a missionary priest!

 

The big difference between the aspirational dreams of Australian cinema in 1975 and today is simply this: where the makers of Picnic at Hanging Rock  were happy to have Rachel Roberts headlining their cast, here the hope for international crossover success is pinned on Harry Potter  star Daniel Radcliffe. The song selection, once again, says it all: “Spirit in the Sky” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” are offered as a hopeful bridge between local colour and the global market.

© Adrian Martin September 2007


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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