Boychoir Directed by François Girard; written by Ben Ripley; with Garrett Wareing, Dustin Hoffman, Eddie Izzard, Debra Winger, Josh Lucas, Kevin McHale, Kathy Bates
Talent that comes with an expiration date is a drama-worthy subject, especially when it involves boys whose gifts bloom for only a few short years. Had Canadian director François Girard dealt with this theme in “Boychoir” using a better screenplay than the one he received from Ben Ripley (“Source Code”), the result might have been a drama of substance. But if “Boychoir” has a worthy emotional and dramatic kernel, it gets lost in a tangle of predictable formulas.
More and more pictures lately feel as if they were generated by a computer, based simply on data compiled from similar films, with no sign of an artist’s touch or distinctive creative vision. And this film is no exception.
Girard (who impressed with 1993’s “Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” but followed that up with pretentious kitsch in 1998’s “The Red Violin” and 2007’s “Silk”) focuses here on boys whose crystalline soprano voices will be lost when they hit puberty. There’s an exclusive boarding school catering for boys with this gift in the eastern United States, and its school choir performs all over the country. What could be a more predictable plot move than to bring an outsider into such a prestigious environment?
“Boychoir” takes this clichéd path by giving us 11-year-old Stet (Garrett Wareing), who’s being raised by the quintessential movie nightmare of an alcoholic, single mother (although the film disposes of her fairly quickly). Stet possesses an unusual singing ability, a talent recognized by the principal, Ms. Steel (Debra Winger), at his school in Odessa, Texas. (Incidentally, this is one of two current movies about characters who don’t know they’re gifted singers: the other is French director Eric Lartigau’s “The Bélier Family,” which handles this aspect of the story in a far more credible way.)
The principal arranges for the prestigious Boychoir National Academy to play at her school, so that its musical director, Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), can witness Stet’s vocal abilities. Carvelle might not have agreed to accept Stet, whose life has understandably made him surly and rebellious, if not for the sudden appearance of the boy’s father, Gerard (Josh Lucas), a wealthy businessman who has a new family in New York and has long avoided contact with his son. Gerard smooths Stet’s way into the new school with a fat check, which the headmistress (Kathy Bates) is all too willing to accept.
From this point on, “Boychoir” follows Stet’s suffering at his new school: his isolation from the other students; his clashes with Carvelle, who, while less of a psychopathic tyrant than J.K. Simmons’ jazz teacher in the recent “Whiplash,” is still very strict and skeptical about Stet’s abilities; and the inevitable rivalry that springs up between Stet and an arrogant classmate, Devon (Joe West), who until now has considered himself the star of the show.
Carvelle has some problems of his own in the form of Drake (Eddie Izzard), his devious British assistant, who is just waiting for his boss to retire so he can take over the job. If the conflicts are predictable, their solutions are even more so, all of which makes “Boychoir” a tedious experience.
That said, the movie does have some virtues. The choral musical interludes are thrilling, and any picture featuring Dustin Hoffman (who in 2012 directed his first film, “Quartet,” set in a nursing home for aging musicians), Kathy Bates and Debra Winger (always a pleasant sight, even in a small role) cannot be a complete waste of time.
Their professionalism is palpable, and the young cast, led by Garrett Wareing as Stet, does a good job. None of them, however, can save the movie from its own formulas, which cause it to miss the potential of what it might have been.