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'Hunky Dory' review

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'Hunky Dory' still

A motley group of sixth formers stage a glam rock opera at their Swansea school in this bittersweet comedy drama, set during the famously 'long hot summer' of 1976. But to compare it against High School Musical or Glee would be unfair - director Marc Evans is less concerned with glossy dance numbers and shiny teeth, angling instead for a warts-and-all portrait of teenage life.

Minnie Driver heads the class as the free-spirited Viv, who returns to Swansea after dreams of acting stardom have failed to materialise. She is far from bitter, though, instead placed like a beacon at the centre of the film to radiate a genuine passion that inspires the mostly downtrodden kids. Thankfully, she isn't a total hippy either, with Driver bringing some of her natural grit to the part.

Her unlikely mission is to blend Shakespeare's pastoral comedy romance The Tempest with stomping tracks from the likes of David Bowie, Nick Drake and ELO. Leading the ensemble of young actors is Aneurin Barnard as Davey, a sensitive soul who pines for his leading lady Stella (Danielle Branch) after their recent break-up. Alas, Stella has her eye on the local nightclub deejay.

Views of rural Swansea are gorgeously rosy-hued, but that's no reflection on the relationship between Davey and Stella. It's a tortured affair that plays into the drama unfolding at home. There, Davey's dad (a gruffly amusing Owen Teale) is struggling to make do after his wife ran off with another man, a flashy bloke reputed to own one of those new-fangled deep freezers...

Barnard, who heads an ensemble of young new faces, is a compelling leading man. He has an ability to wear his heart on his sleeve without seeming pitiable, finding confidence instead through his transformation into a Bowie-like romantic hero (complete with eyeliner in the final act). And his quieter scenes with Driver resonate just as well.

The musical numbers are a touch static, but what they lack in choreography they make up for with sheer sincerity. While modern Hollywood musicals glorify bland pop, this film celebrates a truly bright and exciting period in (especially, British) music; the angst of classic songs like Bowie's 'Life on Mars' poignantly echoing the emotional turmoil going on behind-the-scenes of the school gym.

Viv is fighting other battles in the staffroom with a stuffy sociology tutor (Haydn Gwynne) and the PE teacher (Steve Speirs), but these play out a little more predictably in exposing the low regard some teachers have for the arts and, even worse, their suspicion of "working class" kids. Still, Darren Evans gives a great performance as a troubled tearaway, never begging sympathy for his plight.

It is difficult to keep tabs on all of the kids featured and some momentum is lost through the middle of the film. At the same time, however, it's Evans's refusal to shape their stories against traditional arcs that ensures you'll want to know what happens to them all. The kids' final performance is a high note - rousing and true; final proof that you don't need tidy resolutions to spin a lasting memory.


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