I almost half-enjoyed the routine drama Boychoir. But then the closing credits rolled, and so did my eyes. Because the music accompanying the last quivering moments of a film about an underdog singing prodigy and his aloof choirmaster was The Mystery of Your Gift, a mawkish offering co-written and over-performed by Josh Groban, the pseudo-classical singer with puppy-dog eyes and no shame at all. "A single note passes out of the ashes, a flickering ember begins," he croons. "It's the courage to turn when the pages have burned…"
People, imagine if you will: Me, sitting in a dark theatre with a cherry Twizzler wilting dramatically in my hand, listening to the saddened, drooping notes of an imaginary pennywhistle. Leave it to Groban to sabotage an otherwise mediocre movie.
Like the song, the film is meant to be inspiring and uplifting, which is how many filmgoers will likely receive it. Directed by the accomplished Canadian François Girard, Boychoir stars Dustin Hoffman as the distant and demanding conductor who reluctantly schools a talented but rough-edged and untrained boy soprano. Now, I know what you're thinking, that the high-voiced pupil ends up teaching the teacher a lesson in the end. And right you are, Ebert.
The protagonist here is Stet, a gorgeous but sulking child of a vodka-swilling single mother. They live on the wrong side of the tracks in Odessa, Tex. I mean, their shack of a house is right next to a railroad track. The insolent Stet is the product of a brief affair that happened 11 years earlier. When his mother dies at the beginning of this film, his estranged father – a well-off businessman from New York who supported him only financially – sends him off to a prestigious East Coast choir school. He's going to have some trouble fitting in there, obviously, and having his new-found dad dump him immediately doesn't help his morale either.
The role of Stet is capably handled by Garrett Wareing, a novice who does scruffy and angry very well. Does this fledgling actor have a photo of James Dean handy for inspiration?
If Stet has many things and people to rebel against, he also has supporters championing him. But Hoffman's Mr. Carvelle is not one of them. His career clock is ticking, his ambitions are pressing and he hasn't the time to develop a raw singer such as Stet. Realistically, by the time Stet ever does reach the level of his fellow choirboys, the troubled treble's voice would have probably changed to alto anyhow.
Hoffman's role is an important one, but not a big one. He's not called upon to bring a lot to the table, and, as a pro, doesn't muscle up his part.
Elsewhere, we have comedian Eddie Izzard as an antagonistic assistant choirmaster with a mild Machiavellian streak. And there's Kathy Bates as the long-suffering, lollipop-loving school administrator. She's perfect for the part – I'd watch a sitcom that starred her character.
As for the script, if Groban's theme song is overly romantic and too on the nose, screenwriter Ben Ripley is more subtle. A boy soprano's career is a short one, with a voice that is fragile, soaring and doomed. It is a gift not to be wasted, life being nothing if not time-sensitive.
Boychoir is 103 minutes long, if you're counting.