The Choir (PG) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. François Girard, US, 2014, 103 mins

Cast:  Garrett Wareing, Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Debra Winger, Eddie Izzard, Josh Lucas

French Canadian director Girard is best known for his two films with a classical music theme , The Red Violin and 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, while the film’s screenwriter Ben Ripley, who wrote the cracking sci-fi thriller Source Code, has another side to him in that he is also a classical pianist. Both men are here expressing their love of music, specifically the short lived beauty of the boy soprano voice.

The story is set in a “boychoir” school, which specializes in nurturing such voices before they disappear with the onset of puberty. Stet (Wareing) is living in poverty with his single mother in a tough neighbourhood in Texas.  The only support he gets is from his sympathetic head teacher, who recognises his musical talent.  When Stet’s mother dies unexpectedly, his father (Josh Lucas), who has another family and has always ignored Stet, uses his clout to enlist his son into an elite boychoir school on the East Coast and so get the boy off his hands.  Stet is initially completely out of his depth, but with the encouragement of the school’s choirmaster Carvelle (Hoffman) the boy begins to develop and appreciate the gift he has been given by fate.

The mentor/mentee relationship between Carvelle and the boy has certain similarities to that between teacher and pupil in Whiplash.  But unlike the almost unbelievable brutality of the teacher in that film, Carvelle’s single minded strict discipline and dedication to his art is laced with humanity and his own growing melancholy and disenchantment with life.  Plus the fact that the character is played by Hoffman, who even when playing a less than likeable character, as he does here, brings an underlying warmth and convincing multi-dimensional quality to his performance.

Girard has also gathered a strong and rather starry supporting cast. Izzard is amusingly snappy as Carvelle’s somewhat snobbish assistant, who disapproves of the school acting in Stet’s case as what he describes waspishly as a “weird cat rescue mission”, while Bates is strong as the school’s long suffering headmistress, dealing with adult colleagues who are in many ways as difficult as some of the boys. The most affecting performance among the supporting adults is that of Lucas, who gives an interesting depth to the initially unsympathetic role of Stet’s father.

The film’s main asset however is 12-year-old Wareing as Stet. He is an engaging, charming and good looking boy, who will bring out the mother in every older woman, while pubescent girls will just fall in love with him.  He is a very promising and already accomplished young actor.  The character as written is however a touch unconvincing, in that Stet, not surprisingly considering his circumstances, is an undisciplined child with an anger management problem, which comes and goes in a somewhat unbelievably erratic fashion.

We could have done with learning more of Stet’s background in the early scenes of the film, which would have benefited from going deeper into his relationship with Winger, who is a bit wasted as his teacher and most importantly it would have been helpful to have seen more of his interaction with his alcoholic mother, who gets hardly any screen time.  The film also misses the opportunity to explore in any real depth the emotional effects that the phenomenon of the boy soprano voice it has on its owner in terms both of its feminine quality and the shortness of its life.

The singing though is totally gorgeous and despite a few reservations this is still an enjoyable and engrossing film, which introduces a potentially exciting new young talent.

Review by Carol Allen