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AN AUSSIE FILM THAT ALMOST GOES DOWN UNDER.

IT'S A GOOD thing "The Year My Voice Broke" generated surprising rueful and nostalgic power before it's over. It's actually quite a strong little movie from Australia even though its title is strictly from hunger and the first 45 minutes of pubescent yearnings and hormonal hi-jinx Aussie style threaten to be unendurable.

It's set in 1963 but then isn't everything?

The subject is human affection in its most larval forms and the final transformations of pubescent ambivalence.

At first, it threatens to be about desperate attempts to lose virginity and spying on girls and roughhouse mating rituals by the old swimming hole. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

It also threatens to be about the sensitive, puberty-stricken boy (Noah Taylor) in love with the slightly older blond venus (Loene Carmen) who is, in turn, in love with the town's wild boy (Ben Mendolsohn).

Yes, of course, the three of them spend an evening in a haunted house and, yes, the town's rude boys make fun of the moony, love-struck kid and stick his head in the toilet. And yes, of course, the king of the wild boys -- the moonstruck kid's romantic rival for the venus' affections -- rescues him.

The background music right from the opening credits is Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Lark Ascending" which would seem to put the film in the running for greatest musical desecration in current movies.

Once old-fashioned Romantic melodrama shows up -- with its hints of haunted destiny -- things pick up considerably. It's almost worthy of Vaughan Williams' ethereal mysticism in the soundtrack.

It turns into a small-town Aussie version of "Rebel Without A Cause" from Sal Mineo's point of view -- in other words, from the sensitive young boy's. Add the doomed destiny of the heroine's bloodline (we're moving into Jane Eyre country here) and the film turns into a fairly creditable piece of work.

The ending carries a tidal surge of regret for youthful emotional loss that will no doubt be universal.

We've seen enough Australian cinema by now to know that some of their films artfully transform American cliches and others merely drown in them.

Just when "The Year My Voice Broke" seems ready to go down for the third time, haunted melodrama buoys it up and it begins to get along swimmingly.

Rated PG-13 and opening today in the North Park Theater.

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