If heartwarming, against-the-odds, triumph-over-adversity, wrong-side-of-the-tracks films float your boat and you are in no way demanding then The Choir is your boat floated, pretty much, but otherwise it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, hundreds of times. This is one of those films that appears to have never watched any other films, or it surely wouldn’t have bothered. My own particular boat, as you’ve probably already surmised, was not floated. It didn’t even leave the dock. Chances are, it may even be all rusted up by now.
I was initially attracted to seeing this film because 1) I do adore Dustin Hoffman and 2) I do adore choirs and 3) I honestly had no idea quite how rubbish it would be. Dustin Hoffman. Choirs. What’s not to love?, I thought naively. Directed by François Girard (The Red Violin), this film features one of those troubled boys who can’t be turned around, or can he?
Our troubled boy in this instance is Stet (Garrett Wareing), an 11-year-old from Texas (yet with no Texan accent, weirdly). He lives with his alcoholic single-parent mother and gets into fights and blows off school, but his headmistress (Debra Winger) believes in his singing voice, even though we are given no indication as to why. Shouldn’t we be allowed to hear his singing voice before the headmistress is allowed to believe in it? As he is always fighting and blowing off school, when has she ever heard him sing? The Choir, right from the off, asks that you suspend not only disbelief, but also a good portion of your IQ.
Poor Stet, and then his mother is killed in a car crash. (Not a spoiler. Happens early on. No great loss. Total cliché of an alcoholic mom. He’s more the parent …etc.) His father, who has been absent all these years, and has always kept Stet a secret, as he was the result of an extramarital affair and he has a family in New York, steps in, as does the headmistress, who suggests that, with the singing voice we’ve still yet to hear, Stet should attend the elite American Boychoir School in New Jersey. His father (Josh Lucas), who turns out to be wealthy, drives him all the way there, although why he would go to such effort after more than a decade of not giving a damn asks not only that you further suspend your disbelief, but also whatever is left of your IQ.
The choirmaster at the school is Hoffman in a role which, in other circumstances, would almost certainly have gone to Robin Williams. Finally — finally! — the boy sings, and he is gifted, a sublime soprano. But Hoffman and his prissy assistant (Eddie Izzard, bizarrely) and the school’s hard-headed principal (Kathy Bates) must, of course, give every reason why Stet shouldn’t be admitted — no discipline; unmotivated; no technique; the school year has already started — before admitting him. His father continues to keep Stet secret, but stares out of windows into the middle distance a lot, so his conscience is playing up, obviously.
Stet does not settle into the school easily, as the other kids are all posh, and provoke him and pick on him, which is hardly original, but this film, not having seen any other films, can’t be expected to know that, I guess. Hoffman, meanwhile, is a demanding and acerbic choirmaster who conducts like the Queen waving out of her carriage — couldn’t someone have given him a few conducting lessons, at least? — yet proves to be quite nice and wise, deep down. The choral scenes are, indeed, sublime — boy sopranos singing as one; what’s not to love? — but they are not sufficient to rescue this film from its own predictability. Will Hoffman and Stet both teach each other something? Will Stet sing the solo at the pivotal moment? Will Stet’s father turn from the window and say to his wife, ‘I have something to tell…’? Will Stet find the family he never thought he’d have?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes, and these aren’t spoilers either as, even with your IQ suspended, you can see it all coming a mile off. So no, this film did not float my own particular boat. Nowhere near.