Magic as long as the singing lasts, the rest of Boychoir is let down by half-conceived characters and skeleton sub-plots.
Finding a fresh start for wayward youths is the stock in trade of many a coming of age drama. Boxing is a popular one; as is pretty much any sporting endeavour, really. The same goes for the performing arts, and even a spell working at a water park in a more recent effort (that is, 2013's The Way Way Back). As the title suggests, Boychoir (The Choir in the UK) offers salvation to one such troubled kid through the pre-eminent boys’ choir in the United States. As beautiful as the choir sings, however, there’s little else to recommend a run of the mill drama that seeks out every short-cut possible.
The boy in question is Stet (Garrett Wareing). The fetid nature of his life is established quickly via a school fight and a drunken mother half passed out on a sofa somewhere in Texas. Not that this is of much interest to François Girard’s film. The mother is quickly dispatched, leaving Stet with an uncertain future. He’s not really alone of course. As is so often the way in the fantasy world of cinema, he has an influential cheerleader in the form of school Principal Steel (Debra Winger) who bags him an audition with Master Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman)’s choir. Even at this early stage, it’s not the only time she’s tried to lever Stet into the choir. Steel had previously arranged for them to come and perform purely to sneak Stet in front of Hoffman’s Master Carvelle. Naturally it doesn’t go well the first time out. Otherwise, what adversity is left?
Wholly predictable hiccups aside, Stet doesn’t dwell upon past failure. With his mother dead and father Gerard (Josh Lucas) a philanderer who doesn’t want his family to know he has another child, Stet finds himself back in front of Carvelle and a team that includes Kathy Bates (as Headmistress), Eddie Izzard (as Drake) and another young teacher Wooly (Kevin McHale). This time he’s in, allowing a barrage of clichés to flow his way. There’s the rich absent father who tries to brush him under the carpet, a petty rivalry with the star singer Devon (Joe West), a gruff love with Carvelle, and an irrationally mean school official Drake with his own strange favourites.
The story hardly goes much further than that. No character develops beyond the one line summary jotted down when the film was pitched. The subplot with Lucas’ father is especially forced. Absent for long sections, he surfaces again near the end to add wholly unnecessary tension. Worse, there's a horribly asinine conclusion that feels very much like a rush job. Other attempts to wring a little drama out of Stet’s predicament fall similarly flat. Because all good stories need a villain, a rival student is introduced in Devon. Again, this happens remarkably late in the day, their mutual antagonism rising up from nowhere.
So what is going on if Boychoir keeps failing to engage fully with Stet’s struggle? There’s an inspirational teacher, of course, a minor key variant on the character seen in pretty much every high school film ever made. Much younger this time, Wooly believes almost unreasonably in Stet, much like his Principal, going out on a limb time and again. For the most part though, there’s singing, soaring high above the mundanity of the rest of the film.
In revision: When the narrative pauses briefly, take a breather from its compulsive need to ram half-baked sub-plots down the audience’s throat, the choir sings. Working through a number of classic pieces that concludes with Handel for the finalé, there’s brief escape from the dull routine of the narrative each time the children sing. These are the only moments when everything else dims down, the camera switches between the focussed children and those listening raptly. Sadly it can’t last, on each occasion the moment fades as the final note dies down.
Boychoir’s dogged insistence on taking a conservative approach throughout is made all the more frustrating by the inclusion of a top drawer cast that goes to waste. Hoffman is given next to nothing to work with, stuck playing the cynical older mentor who gradually has his heart melted. At least he gets the semblance of an arc. No such luck for poor Kathy Bates and Eddie Izzard. The former is a flitting presence as the amiable head of the school, the latter stuck in his smug villain mode that he’s able to do in his sleep. These charismatic veterans are kept on low volume while the dramatic spotlight is left to fall on Lucas, McHale and most of all Wareing. They all perform adequately, but without the spark one might expect from such star power.
Imagine attempting to create a furniture business aping IKEA without the flair and you have Boychoir. All the right pieces are included, but they’re poorly manufactured and have no sense of style. For a film chock full of angelic singing, the rigidly unadventurous narrative path leaves it disappointingly muted.