Late screenwriting guru Syd Field often wrote in his Bibles for wannabe film scribes that if the writer doesn’t grab the viewer in the first 10 minutes (or the first 10 pages), then there’s no reason to stay with the story. Often these introductory minutes indicate the kind of story we are about to see, and illuminate important aspects of the protagonist whose journey we will follow. If one judges Boychoir from its opening scenes, few would want to stick around to see how the rest of the story unfolds.
The film begins going steadily through a checklist of conventions for stories about a downtrodden young protagonist with prodigal talent. The first shot of the film is of Stet, played by newcomer Garrett Wareing, crouching behind a train as it rattles through a Texas town. (If one was looking for a more trite way to show that the main character lives on the wrong side of the tracks, you couldn’t find one.) In the next few scenes, he obnoxiously disobeys his music teacher, brawls with a classmate and then returns home to find his mom lounging on the couch in a stupor. Stet dumps the rest of her vodka down the sink as if it was an everyday chore. The mom, meanwhile, doesn’t get another scene: the next time we see her body, it is underneath a blazing car wreck.
Screenwriter Ben Ripley, who also penned the sci-fi thriller Source Code, keeps our expectations low during these initial moments. However, despite a continued reliance on conventional story beats, Boychoir often manages to hit its high dramatic notes with vigor and grace. Stet’s journey from a misunderstood, misanthropic pre-teen to a prized pupil at the National Boychoir doesn’t surprise, but it does satisfy. The character arc engages due to terrific performances and elegantly staged musical sequences, the latter a noted feature of Canadian director François Girard.
The film doesn’t shy away from enforcing other conventions once Stet settles in to his new school. There is a stern choirmaster, Anton Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), who initially scorns Stet for his lack of training and trouble-making ways. There is a rival vocalist, Devon (newcomer Joe West), who insists on getting all of the solos – and the administrative attention. There are scenes where Stet realizes how poorly equipped he is to handle a key spot onstage, as well as moments when a soaring vocal performance lifts the spirits of every character in the room.
Even with its well-worn material though, Boychoir works. Wareing, who had never starred in a film before, is tremendous as Stet. The actor does not hit the high notes – those were filled in by another heavenly voice – yet he possesses quite the dramatic range, darting from bottled rage in his Texas home to deep vulnerability as he comes to grips with adapting to a new life. (Considering how easy it often is to tell if an actor is lip-syncing, Wareing deserves extra credit for fooling us.)
A top-notch ensemble of fine talent surrounds the young actor. Hoffman is perfectly cast as Carvelle, a man whose pursuit for perfection, as well as his quick wit and warmth, seem like a reflection of the Oscar-winner himself. Kathy Bates and Eddie Izzard, meanwhile, run off with the film’s best lines as the school headmistress and a snooty music teacher, respectively. The rest of the rambunctious choir boys are naturals on camera, although few of them have much of a personality. (To keep the story moving, Ripley focuses on the competitions between the young males, rather than the developing companionship.)
While most of the film entertains, some of the subplots could have used some fine-tuning. Stet ends up moving from his one-parent home to the elite academy on the East Coast due to two supporting figures. The first is Ms. Steel (Debra Winger), the lone teacher who realizes Stet has a virtuoso voice. The second is the boy’s negligent, absentee father, played by Josh Lucas, who has not told his wife and kids in New York of his other family. (With a generous check to the National Boychoir, he hopes Stet can remain both financially supported and have others take care of him.) However, Ripley’s screenplay avoids the details of how Ms. Steel discovered Stet’s talent or why his father stranded the boy with his mother more than a decade earlier.
Boychoir finds its flow, perhaps most appropriately, in the choir performances. Girard has done notable work for other Canadian films with a musical heft (The Red Violin, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould). Alas, he is the film’s Carvelle, masterfully staging these vocal pieces. Despite the primary focus on one character, he never forgets the role of the choir. Director of photography David Franco often shoots these recitals from afar, giving the unified body of boys the space to sing outward. Boychoir’s audio mixing team, meanwhile, creates a dense, layered sound. On the whole, the stirring music is more than enough to awaken an audience from pedestrian plotting.
Perhaps Boychoir has been released too closely to Whiplash, the dazzling 2014 thriller that took the musical mentor-protégé relationship to wildly original heights. In comparison to that film’s torment, Girard’s is timid. Nevertheless, Wareing’s compelling performance, surrounded by a uniformly good cast, and several inspiring moments in the second half should leave an audience with joyous classical music in their heads. To reach the film’s dramatic crescendo, though, one will have to sit through some clichés and rushed plotting.
Stirring music and strong performances elevate Boychoir above its conventional story beats into a rather compelling drama.