Review: At Its Best, Harmless 'Hunky Dory' Is Just That

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by William Goss
March 21, 2013 7:03 PM
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It’s the summer of 1976, and between a conservative school administration and an unrelenting drought, things are beyond dry for Wales’ scrappier teens. It’s little wonder that they flock to the more permissive Miss Mae (Minnie Driver) and her glam-rock interpretation of Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" for the school play. Alas, "Hunky Dory" primarily concerns itself with familiar extracurricular woes and offers up much ado about nothing instead of a more rollicking or romantic coming-of-age story.

Each protagonist has their healthy amount of burdens. Mae has to contend with a “small delegation” of disgruntled faculty; to hear it from one, “self-expression doesn’t butter any parsnips” (She is just as puzzled by the remark as we are.) There’s nice guy Davy (Aneurin Barnard) harboring a crush on the play’s co-lead, Stella (Danielle Branch); bullied Kenny (Darren Evans) giving into the peer pressures of his skinhead brethren; and closet case Evan (Tomos Harries) contending with his burgeoning sexuality. It’s all very "This is England" meets "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," lurching from rift to rift without a terrible amount of narrative momentum or directorial personality.

The anonymity of the filmmaking is something of a constant for helmer Marc Evans ("Snow Cake"). Every scene is shot with enough glow and grain that one might mistake the setting for "Tinker Tailor Soldier High," and the closest thing to uplift comes courtesy of the rehearsals of the play’s musical portions. Ranging from David Bowie to Electric Light Orchestra, these covers most appropriately evoke the era and capitalize best on the inherent talent and default earnestness of the young stars’ performances. The in-between, though, is devoted to waiting for familiar shoes to drop among the lovelorn teens and discouraged adults, with Laurence Coriat’s screenplay only surprising when it decides to omit certain clichés rather than embracing them (ex. the way that a drunken single father doesn’t lash out at his missing sons upon their return).

As emblematic of the film’s general indifference as anything is Driver’s central, perfectly fine performance. Her character is only construed as especially flighty or liberal when pitted against stuffy stereotypes in the teacher’s lounge, and when she bonds with the kids over the odd cigarette or expletive, it doesn’t seem entirely far-fetched. Her perpetual compassion and frustration certainly rings true, but there’s no real fire to her pursuit of this particular production or helping her students with their doubts and hurdles; then again, if her turn had been any more zealous, this whole rigmarole might only seem all the more routine. At this point, to call the film another “Britcom” from the producer of "Billy Elliot" would be a generous assessment of its overall personality, pedestrian though many of those efforts are.

What "Hunky Dory" could have used is its own Miss Mae behind the camera to shake things up a bit, rendering a “summer that changed everything” formula into something more empathically wistful, funny or bold. Instead, the end result is what Prospero himself might call “this insubstantial pageant,” too gentle to have any impact, as uncertain of what it will ultimately be as its young subjects are of themselves. [C]

This is a reprint of our review from SXSW 2012.

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