The voices are the stars, while Dustin Hoffman is just along to support the gifted preteen sopranos in “Boychoir.” A welcome return to feature filmmaking by “The Red Violin” director Francois Girard, this relatively by-the-numbers boarding-school drama distinguishes itself through song, thanks to the exceptional musical talents of the American Boychoir School, preteen sopranos whose otherworldly talent lasts for only a few years at most. The mystery of where that ability comes from, coupled with the urgency to share it, lends urgency to an otherwise generic coming-of-ager sure to delight those seeking spiritually grounded, emotionally uplifting entertainment.
The distressing thing about most talent is that it tends to come with a shelf life, nearly always fading over time. (That means you, Justin Bieber!) From pop stars to Olympic gold medalists, exceptional ability typically has an expiration date, and few fields illustrate that narrow window of opportunity better than that of the boychoir: angelic-voiced young men racing against puberty to make their mark. (The rather drastic Italian “solution” of castration offers a metaphor for the desperate ways humans try to artificially extend their period of artistic relevance, although that’s a conversation for another time.)
With myriad chances for transcendent musical interludes along the way, mixed to take full advantage of theater audio systems, “Boychoir” looks at a single season in the life of one such soprano, a Texas kid named Stet (Garrett Wareing) who’s born with an uncanny musical ability, but raised with neither training nor encouragement. Stet acts out at public school, where the principal (Debra Winger) rather miraculously picks up on his potential and begs Carvelle (Hoffman), the creatively fictionalized headmaster of the American Boychoir School, to audition the troubled 11-year-old for a spot in his elite choral program.
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That same day, Stet’s mom dies in a car crash — a tragedy presented so tastefully it actually borders on tacky. That’s because music-savvy screenwriter Ben Ripley (“Source Code”) has rigged the family dynamics to suit the drama, eliminating Stet’s mother and introducing in her place an illegitimate father, Gerard (Josh Lucas), who writes a generous enough check to ensure Stet a spot at ABS, but otherwise shows zero interest in his estranged son, whose existence threatens his married life back in New York.
While the school’s practical-minded headmistress (Kathy Bates) takes Gerard’s “donation,” Carvelle resents this approach, holding the bribery against his new student. Sharing the skepticism is his No. 2, Drake (Eddie Izzard), an ambitious would-be choirmaster itching to inherit Carvelle’s chair. Drake’s competitive fervor ultimately taints the group, sparking a ruthless rivalry between the arrogant lead singer (Joe West) and the friendless Stet.
“It must be a special kind of torture waiting for someone to retire,” the headmistress snaps at Drake, demonstrating the kind of turpentine wit that distinguishes Bates’ voice amid this impressive adult ensemble. It should be said that all three veteran thesps — Hoffman, Bates and Izzard — defy the rule of talent waning with time, and though this isn’t necessarily the type of project any of them might have taken at their peak, the film benefits from their almost casual excellence: They make it look easy.
For his part, Hoffman wasn’t content to play the icy choirmaster who gradually thaws to the realization that the undisciplined Stet is the most talented student he’s ever encountered. He, too, has a few things to learn from the young man, although this isn’t the sort of tuner where classical tradition must yield to modern tendencies. We hear the kids rapping in their free time, but the film celebrates the centuries-old art of religious choral arrangements, culminating in a modified presentation of Handel’s “Messiah” at Christ Church, Conn., hinging on one of the boys’ being able to hit a high “D.”
Hoffman graciously allows Wareing to shine, while reinforcing the theme that there’s a finite opportunity for greatness, and his depends on finding the right group of talented kids to cement his legacy before he retires. Hoffman plays it stern, but when the facade cracks and he finally shows warmth, audiences’ hearts will melt in appreciation. “Boychoir” may be soft, but it’s not run-of-the-mill TV-movie treacle, offering just enough edge to lend credibility (one reason for that earlier car crash) while keeping it appropriate for all ages.
Wareing has his work cut out for him opposite Hoffman, needing to look convincing as both a vocal prodigy and a tormented youth — although the actor, whose flip-forward hairstyle and bee-stung lips suggest Chloe Moretz’s male twin, looks a bit too genteel for the tough-guy routine. He wins us over during a heartbreaking holiday montage, when all the other students go home, leaving Stet alone on campus, abandoned by his father and forgotten by his peers. Of the younger cast, “Glee’s” Kevin McHale most impresses as the junior instructor who shows faith in Stet’s ability.
In a country where musical talent is so often confused with sex appeal, “Boychoir” offers a welcome alternative, celebrating discipline, talent and the sound of untainted innocence. In the real world, this style of singing is too easily subject to homophobia and teasing, and yet the film treats it in such a way that could inspire other young men to seize their potential while it lasts.