It’s a wide divide between hard life living and the disciplined artistry of choral singing.  For eleven year old Stet Cates, a tough kid from Odessa, Texas, it’s a highly unlikely journey.

He sings in the shower although his mother, disapproving of his choice of music, is impressed by the amazing singing voice of her son. Stet, a tormented soul constantly in trouble for fighting, is raised by his boozy single mom in poverty and neglect. She’s usually too drunk to cook for him or even stand up; he’s rebellious and continuously skips school. Yet somehow the tolerant school principal Miss Steele (Debra Winger) recognizes his genius for singing and arranges for the touring prestigious American Boychoir to visit their poor Texas school, with an eye to getting him an audition at the elite East Coast institution. Despite his talent (he’s in the school choir), Stet’s involvement is compromised by his insolence.

The American Boy Choir arrives for a concert, led by their stern and formidable Choir Master, Mr. Carvelle (Dustin Hoffman), a man who is rarely pleased. Stet, punished for another one of his angry outbursts isn’t allowed to attend the performance, but principal Steele, realizing his vocal gifts gets him out of detention so he will hear the choir and audition for Carvelle with the possibility of earning a scholarship at his choir school in New Jersey.

The visiting choir casts a spell over the audience, but much to Steele’s embarrassment, the unimpressed Stet walks out on the auditions, annoying Carvelle.

At this point tragedy enters Stet’s convoluted life.  His mother dies suddenly.  At the funeral he meets his wealthy father Gerard, a man he never knew existed and discovers he has another life with a wife and two daughters.  They have no knowledge of Stet, and Gerard plans to keep it that way.

The film avoids overt sentimentality although there’s a soap opera aura which triggers some suspended disbelief and turns on the tap, leaving the audience happily teary.

These days musical talent is so often confused with sex appeal, yet “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 ridicule and teasing, and yet Canadian director Francois Girard treats it in such a way that could inspire other young men to seize their potential in the short space of two years until their “gift of God” pure soprano voices change as they grow up.

A poignant scene has Stet asking rhetorically, “What’s the point of the boys knocking themselves out taking music lessons if their voices are going to change anyway.” It’s a good question. The answer could be it’s a life lesson teaching the boys to live in the moment.  For Stet, it becomes a crossroads reality.

It’s a treat to see Dustin Hoffman (in a rather rare screen appearance) acting with quiet authority from his patented minimalist style.  Also pleasing are the unexpectedly challenging choral arrangements highlighting the purity of the boys’ singing heard in the background, a lush echo even in dialogue scenes.

“Boychoir” is screening in limited markets.  Watch for its release on DVD, digital and on demand formats.

Alex Reynolds

Providing a Fresh Perspective for Burlington and Hamilton.

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