Review by © Jane Freebury
It’s just as well this 12-year-old is a fast learner. For a boy who could be headed for institutional care after his mother, a single mom, dies suddenly, he has to make some massive life changes in the first half hour of this film’s life.
Stet (Garrett Wareing) is snatched off the slippery slope of disadvantage because he can sing, like an angel. It’s a gift that sees him placed in a national choral boarding school, Boy Choir, after his father, who has a wife and other children, hands the academy a big fat cheque.
Not only does Stet have to enunciate clearly, read music and learn music theory, he has to fit in, the hardest of hard tasks when the rest of the boys are from backgrounds of privilege. If the academy’s crusty principal (played by Kathy Bates) finds waiting for bad-tempered colleagues like Drake ( Eddie Izzard) to retire ‘a special kind of torture’, then fitting into the hallowed halls at Boy Choir would be just as taxing for a Texan kid with attitude like young Stet. It is surprising that the film doesn’t make as much of this personal journey as you might expect.
Even more pleasing than Bates on screen again, is Dustin Hoffman as the choirmaster Carvelle. Hoffman also gives his character the grit the film needs. He does a less convincing job of a flinty old fossil because, of course, he isn’t as hard as he appears, the point being that he expects high standards and has no time for anything less. The performances by screen veterans Bates and Hoffman, as well as young actor Kevin McHale in the part of house master Wooly, are the backbone of the film.
The other good thing is the choral singing, the film’s expected centrepiece. In particular, there’s a sequence when the boys practise in a chapel with the camera panning the space as they pick up their parts. It’s also the moment when Stet, skulking in the shadows, appears to experience his Damascus moment and is finally inspired to join in.
There are signs like smart phones and rap that this coming-of-age drama is in the present, but the film has a fusty, cloistered look and feel. It could be set in the 1950s like its cousin-in-spirit from 1989, Dead Poets Society was. Why? When the message is clearly an attempt to connect with youth and demonstrate the importance of hard work and discipline. It just ain’t enough to have talent.
Quebecois filmmaker Francois Girard did interesting work on Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould in the 1990s, but his direction is less interesting here. When the singing takes over, however, and when Hoffman steps into frame, we soar to another level.