Hunky Dory: SXSW Review

Heartfelt interpretations of Seventies rock are only part of the appeal of nostalgia-drenched high school drama.

Minnie Driver stars in director Marc Evans' film as a young drama teacher adapting contemporary rock tunes to a production of "The Tempest."

AUSTIN -- 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 arthouses, 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.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival, Narrative Spotlight
Production Companies: Film Agency of Wales, Prescience, Aegis Film Fund, Big Pond Productions, Bad Wolf Films
Cast: Minnie Driver, Aneurin Barnard, Danielle Branch, Robert Pugh, Haydn Gwynne
Director: Marc Evans
Screenwriter: Marc Evans, Laurence Coriat
Producers: Jon Finn, Dan Lupovitz
Director of photography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Music: Jody Talbot
Costume designer: Stuart Meecham
Editor: Mali Evans
Sales: Independent Films,London
No rating, 108 minutes