Anybody who's ever had a "coming of age" summer will identify with this one. There's an inherent sadness here, though, that assaults the viewer from the very first scene, as the Australian orphan boys are lined up, from oldest to youngest, looking so hopeful, and the prospective adoptive parents proceed slowly down the line, until they arrive at….a cute young one. The rest of the boys, like losers in a beauty contest, are forced to feign gladness for the one who was chosen over the rest of them. He is whisked off to his happily ever after, and they are left…with the nuns in the desolate Outback.
The "December Boys" are the four with December birthdays, which are all celebrated together, with minimal hilarity from the nuns. They have befriended each other because they intuitively understand that they are all the family they will ever have. Maps (Daniel Radcliffe), Sparks (Christian Byers), Spit (James Fraser), and Misty (Lee Cormie) can't exactly say they're happy, but at least they have each other.
That's why they are all excited when the Mother Superior chooses the four of them for a special summer excursion. It seems that friends of the orphanage have invited them all to spend a summer at their cottage by the cove, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It appears to be a wondrous opportunity to experience life in a completely different way. And so it is.
In that one magical summer, the boys first witness a carnival, see their first woman in a bikini, watch a daredevil on a motorcycle, and meet an old man by the sea, constantly fishing for that one elusive giant catch. Their host and hostess are a little wacky---they call themselves "Skipper" and "Mate" (the wife is the Skipper), and cheerily present their household in nautical terms. But all is not well aboard the good ship Lollygag. It turns out that the Skipper is terminally ill. And her mate is preoccupied with taking care of her. They thought the boys might add a little liveliness to their summer of gloom, but that's a heavy burden to place on a quartet of lifelong orphans. They were hoping for a little cheering up themselves.
The family next door offers some hopefulness: the aforementioned motorcyclist, and his unhappy young wife who desperately wants children, and seems to offer the boys some hope that she might consider one or more of them (redemption in the form of incarnation). There is a teenage girl (a relative visiting for the summer) who offers Maps his first kiss, and his initial introduction to the peaks and valleys of romantic entanglement. Sparks and Spit just enjoy running in the sand and playing on the rocks, but young Misty is just determined that he's going to be the one chosen to be in a family at last: like Pinocchio, he could then become a "real boy."
There's some fantasy interspersed artfully in this film; Misty, in particular, seems to enjoy visions of beatified nuns and a beatific Mother Mary. When he almost drowns in the cove, Maps, who'd jumped in to save him, even shares the bright underwater epiphany. But neither boy really knows what to do with the extraordinary vision, which seems to them like some sort of joint hallucination. They silently shrug it off, while we'd like an exegesis of that experience, please…
In the end, all the boys enjoy a summer they'll never forget. They also discover that community can come in all places and circumstances. And just because an experience makes them sad doesn't mean that it's not important, or significant enough to remember, and, eventually, to embrace the remembrance.
"December Boys" is filled with bittersweet nostalgia. It feels achingly real, but charming at the same time. Despite its distinct lack of obvious "target audience," you'll likely be enchanted.
Questions For Discussion:
1) Did you enjoy a "coming of age" summer? What made it that way for you?
2) Have you discovered community in unlikely places?
3) Have you ever fervently wished for something, and then, when it was finally available to you, suddenly realized that you were more interested in the wishing than in the having?
4) Do you still have friends from your childhood?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas