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Photograph by Matt Nettheim
SUMMERTIME: Daniel Radcliffe's Maps enjoys a memorable vacation down under in 'The December Boys.'

Big Fish

The December Boys: is it the girl, and not the boys, who count in this one?

By Richard von Busack

SINCE Australia is a pipeline of huge female talents, there's some likelihood that Teresa Palmer's Lucy in December Boys will be the next big thing. She has a self-assured walk, and a drastic way with men. The problem is one of intensity. In a seaside cave (Remarkable Rocks on Kangaroo Island, off the coast near Adelaide), she devirginizes Daniel Radcliffe, who plays an orphan nicknamed "Maps." In his chance to break out of the role of Young Mr. Wizard, Radcliffe falls back on the same shy, pale and slightly blocked manners he has at Hogwarts.

It's not clear if Radcliffe has another speed as an actor. And since Palmer's Lucy has to do all the work in seduction, she seems convinced she's burning a hole through the screen. That's not an idea any actor should allow herself. Still ... Michael Powell's last movie, 1969's Age of Consent, featured a similar beachside Oz odalisque. No one would have expected the gawky blonde beachcomber to grow up to be Helen Mirren, which is exactly what happened.

The date of the action in Rod Hardy's December Boys remains vague. In some parts of Australia, as in Utah, 1955 lasted until 1995. But the Creedence music and Norman Greenbaum's inescapable "Spirit in the Sky" peg the time as the late 1960s. Four denizens of a Catholic orphanage in the Outback are sent out to spend a holiday by the sea. Their foster father for the summer holidays is a portly, jovial old ex-Navy sailor (Jack Thompson). He still has his nautical ways; he blows a boatswain's whistle and refers to his wife as "Skipper." The resort consists of a series of half-painted shacks linked by a small boardwalk and a pair of electric wires climbing uphill to a clanky gas generator. It's a funky background to the adventures of Misty, Sparks, Maps and Spit. Puppies by name, they're pretty much puppies by nature. An elderly gapper has been trying to outwit a huge fish called Henry for season after season; one of the children matches his wits against it. But the real highlight of summer vacation is the boys' glimpse of a naked girl. She is their neighbor Teresa (Victoria Hill), the French wife of "Fearless," a trick motorcycle rider at the local carnival. (Sullivan Stapleton plays him with the tepid brooding of the thug on a soap opera.)

Misty (George "Foghorn" Winslow look-alike Lee Cormie), a shy artistic kid with thick spectacles, narrates this "The Summer We Became Men" story. Early on, he hears that the childless Fearless and Teresa are considering adopting a child, and he tries to be as good as possible so that he'll get the position. The Catholic strain in the story is both lampooned and honored; there's a fantasy sequence about cartwheeling nuns as well as a serious guest appearance by the glowing Virgin Mary herself. This piousness is counterpointed with more gusty material, such as Hill's shower scene and the incident of the four boys mooning some adults. A Disney story with breasts and butts is still a Disney story. It's just the sun, the sea, the landscape and the summer girl that end up justifying this movie, if anything justifies it.

Movie Times DECEMBER BOYS (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Rod Hardy, written by Marc Rosenberg, based on the novel by Michael Noonan, photographed by David Connell and starring Daniel Radcliffe opens Sept. 28.

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