‘Boychoir’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
The best thing to do is sit back and enjoy the heavenly music  

Dustin Hoffman's sour choirmaster helps a young singing talent to bloom in director Francois Girard’s salute to the American Boychoir

Much of Canadian Francois Girard’s career as a director of films and opera has been focused on music, from his critically acclaimed 1993 debut Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould to his popular The Red Violin. In Boychoir, he brings heavenly music to the screen, sung in harmony by angelic choirboys who, for the short space of two years or so, exercise their "gift of God" as pure sopranos, until their voices change as they grow up. 

It's a wonderful idea with good crowd-pleasing potential and, had the story-telling been more credible, this could have been a major coup for all concerned, not least the fine cast that headlines Dustin Hoffman and includes Kathy Bates, Eddie Izzard and Debra Winger. As is, the story of Stet, a poor Texas boy who ends up in a fancy-pants singing school, requires such large amounts of suspended disbelief that one wonders if the film is principally aimed at children.

Even so, adult audiences will respond to the curious subject and its young protag. The one canny good thing about Ben Ripley’s screenplay is the way it avoids overt sentimentality until the final scene, which turns on the tap and leaves the audience happily teary. But the characters remain sketchy and motivation often is lacking, making this seem more like a high-class TV movie than a theatrical cousin to the gotta-dance film Billy Elliot.

Newcomer Garrett Wareing is the 11-year-old Stet, a troubled young soul raised by his boozy single mom in poverty and neglect. She’s usually too drunk to cook for him or even stand up; he's rebellious and blows off school. Yet somehow the school principal (Winger) recognizes his genius for singing (there’s no indication how) and arranges for the touring American Boychoir to visit their poor Texas school, with an eye to getting him an audition at the elite East Coast institution.

The first time we hear the choir perform is in the school gym, and their angelic soprano voices and sophisticated harmonies are thrilling indeed. Afterward, the brusque, no-nonsense choirmaster (Hoffman) and his prissy British assistant Mr. Drake (Izzard) prepare to listen to Stet sing, but he turns his back on them and runs off.

Shortly thereafter, Mom dies in a car accident and Stet discovers he has a father after all: a rich, guilt-stricken New Yorker (Josh Lucas, looking perpetually furtive) who has been sending child support all these years but has no interest in the boy. Why he should turn up at the funeral is puzzling, given that he has another family back in Manhattan and wants nothing to do with this "secret" son. So it's a bigger mystery why he drives the boy cross-country to apply for admission at the American Boychoir and writes the headmistress (Kathy Bates) a hefty check to get him admitted before slinking away.

The faux Gothic boarding school looks like a musical version of the Harry Potter manse, where mop-headed boys in uniform study highly advanced musical techniques in a rigidly disciplined environment. Needless to say, Stet sticks out for behavioral problems as much as his inability to read music.

Wareing is fresh and photogenic in the role, though he noticeably lacks a Southern drawl or Texas accent. His rivalry with smug lead singer Devon (Joe West) unfolds by the numbers as they compete for the choirmaster's approval and plum singing roles. Hoffman fills the choirmaster's shoes with gruff aplomb, though his skepticism about Stet outstays its welcome. As the fussy Englishman, Izzard is the caricature of a baddie but has some very funny lines, while Bates is a joy as the beleaguered, sharp-tongued school administrator.

Perhaps the most realistic scene is when Stet asks what's the point of the boys knocking themselves out taking music lessons if their voices are going to change anyway. A good question. The young teacher who champions him (Kevin McHale) has the answer: The lessons themselves are the point, meaning the boys have to learn to live in the moment. It's something to take home.   

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala)
Production company: Informant Media
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Josh Lucas, Kevin McHale, Eddie Izzard, Debra Winger, Garrett Wareing
Director: Francois Girard
Screenwriter: Ben Ripley
Producers: Judy Cairo, Carol Baum, Jane Goldenring
Executive producers: Michael Simpson, Eric Brenner, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Grant Guthrie, Ben Ripley, Guirec van Slingelandt, Darrel Casalino, Rob van den Berg, Paul B. Loyd Jr., Jeff Steen, Bob Westendarp, Jarod Becker
Director of photography: David Franco
Production designer: Jane Musky

Editor: Gaetan Huot
Music: Brian Byrne
Sales: Embankment Films/CAA in U.S.

No rating, 103 minutes