Hunky Dory Deserves a Rapturous Round of Applause

 <em>Hunky Dory</em> Deserves a Rapturous Round of ApplauseSet in Wales in the summer of 1976, this sweet, benign little British musical from the producer of Billy Elliot stars Minnie Driver as a high-school drama teacher facing daunting challenges while trying to stage Shakespeare’s The Tempest as a rock opera. Her purpose is to encourage bored, apathetic students to explore self-expression as an antidote to their usual obsession with sex and drugs, by playing their own musical instruments and performing their favorite tunes by the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, The Who and David Bowie—whose 1971 album Hunky Dory gives the film its title. The result is not without a few moments of exhilaration, although the overall effect is more like the Bard of Avon meets Glee.

Based on director Marc Evans’s reminiscences about his own fellow high school students and their favorite teacher, Hunky Dory deals with the myriad obstacles faced by the young, idealistic, liberal-thinking teacher and her students. The faculty and staff disapprove, including one resentful social studies teacher who believes in discipline over lenience and a macho athletic director who scorns the time spent on play rehearsals instead of football practice.

The kids in the cast face broken marriages, alcoholic parents, budding homosexuality, racial tension and hormonal coming-of-age hurdles of every shape and size. The film unveils some teens of great promise—especially Aneurin Barnard as the class lothario and Darren Evans as an angry skinhead with a hauntingly sensitive voice (his rendition of “Everybody Knows” is a highlight). When a mysterious arsonist burns the sets and costumes, the school, the show and the teacher’s inspired ideas on education are all in danger. How the mystery is solved revives not only the school’s spirit, but Vi’s faith as well. The musical finale, staged outdoors under the moon, would make Shakespeare hum.

Ms. Driver’s Welsh accent sounds authentic, and the kids perform the pop-rock score with just the right amount of raw talent, tempered with a lack of Hollywood slickness. Not as corny as High School Musical and only half as clever and risky as Glee, it sort of lies there, somewhere in the middle, well-meaning but awkwardly structured and with no resistance to clichés. Hunky Dory has some pleasant things in it, but unfortunately, the funereal pace makes a snail look like a jackrabbit.

rreed@observer.com

HUNKY DORY

Running Time 110 minutes

Written by Laurence Coriat

Directed by Marc Evans

Starring Minnie Driver, Aneurin Barnard and Danielle Branch