December Boys comes clouded in a thick haze of sepia-toned nostalgia. Rob Hardy's adaptation of Michael Noonan's novel looks back with misty-eyed longing at a pivotal summer at the beach shared by four orphans collectively known as "The December Boys," a reference to their month of birth. Taking a break from wizardry, Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe exudes a gawky, fawn-like vulnerability as the group's oldest and moodiest boy, a lanky teenager who experiences the giddy infatuation of first love and the soul-wracking torment of first heartbreak in quick succession.
Radcliffe is the big draw, but he's really a supporting player, just one of the parentless wonders sent to live with a loving couple one glorious, life-changing summer. The boys quickly become enraptured by clothing-averse French beauty Victoria Hill and trick motorcyclist Sullivan Stapleton, a low-rent Evel Knievel wannabe. His profession doesn't earn much respect in the straight world, but makes him a hero to a quartet of nice though mischievous boys. When word begins to spread that the childless couple is intent on adopting one of their charges permanently, a fevered competition breaks out as the boys scramble to worm their way into Stapleton and Hill's hearts.
Hill's skinny-dipping and the sexual aggressiveness of Radcliffe's first love, played by Teresa Palmer, alert the protagonists to the scary excitement of a '60s counterculture worlds away from the nuns, rules, and repression of the orphanage. Hardy and screenwriter Marc Rosenberg sketch the boys' innocent misadventures with palpable affection that all too often crosses the line into full-on mawkishness. This is especially problematic toward the end, when the film gives itself over to a heart-tugging climax and a maudlin resolution to the framing story, where the now-grown December boys reunite to fulfill a last wish. For much of its duration, December is poignantly bittersweet, but the closing sugar rush washes its pleasing ambiguities away.