Film Review: Hunky Dory

Heartfelt interpretations of ’70s rock are only part of the appeal of this nostalgia-drenched high-school drama.

Less a David Bowie-obsessed version of “Glee” than a cinematic big brother to real-life groups like the Langley Schools Music Project, Marc Evans' Hunky Dory prioritizes the sensations and emotions of high school over soap-opera storylines and effortlessly captures how they're intertwined with pop music. Its atmospheric evocation of 1976's uncommonly sunny Welsh summer makes it ideal for art houses, where name recognition of star Minnie Driver and behind-the-scenes ties to Billy Elliot will enhance its appeal.

The film's mood-trumps-plot approach may keep some viewers from settling in right away: When we meet Driver's Viv, the young drama teacher has already recruited her band of teen actors, sold them on adapting contemporary rock tunes to a liberties-taking production of The Tempest and made her share of enemies in the school's administration.

We only glancingly hear about the dreams Viv left behind in London, but no matter: When cherubic, curly-haired Davy (Aneurin Barnard) breaks into a Bowie song accompanied by girls using half-filled water bottles as chimes, the movie's achingly bittersweet tone is established.

If Viv's personal history could have used a bit more development here, the screenplay's handling of student dramas benefits from having much left out. We move unhurriedly from one character to another, witnessing the middle chapters of broken-home tragedy and first-love turmoil; having to fill in the gaps ourselves both makes the stories more involving and sets Hunky Dory apart from more conventional teen films. Though the movie's young cast doesn't offer the breakout performances seen in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (set during the same summer on the other side of the globe, and similarly music-obsessed), actors Barnard, Darren Evans and Tom Harries all manage, occasionally, to make the ensemble plot seem to be about their characters alone.

The buttery, hazy light DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures does much to set the film apart, though some shots take that haze too far, with blurry shots that look like they were filmed for TV and blown up to widescreen as an afterthought. The film's sound, though, is unimpeachable, with orchestras of actual teens playing stirring new arrangements of everything from rock-opera classics to Nick Drake's lonely "Cello Song." When rehearsals finally give way to full, unconventional production numbers, it's hard to imagine any way Hunky Dory could get much better.
The Hollywood Reporter