Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Francois Girard
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Garrett Wareing, Kathy Bates, Kevin McHale, Eddie Izzard, Josh Lucas, Debra Winger, Joe West.
Mr Hoffman’s opus?
This feelgood coming of age drama about the battle of wills between a troubled young boy and a music teacher is another variation on the familiar underdog story. It is more in the vein of Mr Holland’s Opus than last year’s Whiplash. It also has overtones of Dead Poet’s Society about it as it explores some wonderful life lessons.
Written by Ben Ripley, who is better known for his science fiction themed films like Species II and the mind-bending time travel thriller Source Code, etc, Boychoir centres around Stet (newcomer Garrett Wareing), a troubled and angry 11 year old who is left alone after his alcoholic and uncaring mother is killed in a car crash. His estranged biological father (Josh Lucas), who has never acknowledged his existence to his new family in upstate New York, initially wants to place him in foster care. But at the urging of a sympathetic teacher (Debra Winger), he sends him to the American Boychoir academy, a prestigious choral academy on America’s east coast.
There the choir master Anton Carvell (Dustin Hoffman) recognises something special in Stet and slowly encourages him, despite some reservations from other staff members. But Stet is an outsider, an underdog from an underprivileged background who doesn’t fit in, and some of the other boys also resent his presence. But under Carvell’s patient tutelage, Stet eventually becomes the star of the school’s travelling choir.
This earnest but enjoyable film also explores some familiar issues of bullying, family problems, the need for acceptance, and the healing power of music. Boychoir is the first feature film from Canadian born filmmaker Francois Girard in almost a decade. His films are often centred around music and musicians, from his feature debut The Red Violin through to his documentaries on Glenn Gould, violinist Yo Yo Ma and his live concert film about Peter Gabriel, and the powerful themes and story about redemption appealed to him.
Hoffman bring gravitas and real sense of integrity and compassion to his role as Carvell, a grizzled mentor who initially seems a hard taskmaster. But beneath his gruff exterior and uncompromising nature lies something warmer as we learn more about him and his character and the sense of bitterness and personal disappointment that drives him. Newcomer Wareing is excellent as the troubled and angry Stet who finds release and purpose through music. He brings both a rebellious quality and a hint of vulnerability to his performance, and he has a natural screen presence. The prickly relationship between Carvell and Stet provides the dynamic tension that drives the movie towards its upbeat finale.
Girard has assembled a solid supporting cast, who all add a touch of class to the material. Kathy Bates plays the school’s dean who also develops a soft spot for Stet and tries to encourage him. Glee‘s Kevin McHale is a sympathetic character as music teacher Wooly, while Eddie Izzard brings a haughty quality to his performance as Carvell’s jealous and antagonistic assistant choir master and he gets some of the best lines.
Lovers of music will certainly appreciate some of the beautiful choral music, superbly staged by Girard. The familiar and fairly conventional underdog story has enough emotional beats to ensure that the material nonetheless resonates strongly with audiences.