In our culture of post-irony and mass-fabricated cool, nostalgia is exalted while sentimentality is either dismissed as trite and passé or reviled outright. This rejection is ironic in itself, because the trends and motifs that are being paraded as unique represent our collective appreciation and fondness for the past, that which is documented in our parents’ photographs and is on display at every vintage boutique. But we are inundated by grossly inept and mawkish depictions of youth and romance and tragic deaths, so our conditioned reaction as self-appointed cultural critics is to mock the obvious targets. If this is how we approach intrinsically sweet and wistful material (think Lawrence Kasdan and Laurel Canyon folkies), how do we define the boundary of what is acceptable? Where do we draw the line between tasteful and bathetic, and how do we judge something that straddles that line? As subjective as this may be, I contend that there is an ideal middle ground where indie and outré enthusiasts can be satisfied by tame and prosaic material, as long as the flaws are minimized. We’ll call this the harm reduction style of filmmaking.
Marc Evans tests this theory with Hunky Dory by being unrepentant about sentimentality. The dated lingo is right there in the title, concertedly referencing an essential Bowie album and establishing its self-awareness. Bowie’s influence indeed weaves its way into the story, which takes place in 1976 at a Welsh parochial school where the students are producing a musical rendition of The Tempest. The play is being directed by Vivienne (Minnie Driver), an iconoclast who has returned to her hometown after a failed attempt to make it in London, and the motley cast is led by Davey (Aneurin Barnard), a lovelorn singer chasing after the wrong girl. They are two leads chosen from a template, stenciled in as you would expect. Vivienne is determined to pull the show together but she’s up against an asinine rugby coach, an adversarial schoolmarm and the imminent summer. All she wants is for her students to learn how to “express themselves” through art, yet the traditionalists are offended by her methods and the students keep walking out on her imploding play. Davey, meanwhile, is at the center of this entropic squall; his family and class orbiting around as he tries to find firm ground.
A skein of narratives run through the film, each taking on a different adolescent theme. Unrequited love, broken homes, gender identity and strained friendships all make an appearance, and Evans is able to tie them together without overstuffing the story. They’re undoubtedly trite, but there is a Gestalt logic to them, and the musical performances overshadow their simplicity. Every fractured number is buttressed by Barnard, a young virtuoso whose demeanor screams “thou hast forsaken me,” and the ill-fated rehearsals come off as choreographed set pieces. Nobody steps out of character for a solo in the spotlight and the scenes are curated for unadulterated enjoyment. Returning from a lost episode of Where Are They Now, Minnie Driver deserves a note of recognition. She is completely in command of her role as the impassioned, bullhorn-toting director, becoming unhinged but defiantly holding everything together as her project falls apart. In essence, she’s a metaphor for the film, teetering on the fulcrum of success and failure.
There may not be a novel idea in Hunky Dory, but the picture is consistent and easy to swallow. In a word, it’s pat — and that’s fine. It is entirely average, nothing more, seemingly engineered for a lazy Sunday afternoon on the couch. The players cover the Beach Boys and Bowie and familiar points in between, a mixtape of standards. And the play itself is surprisingly fresh, culminating in a grandiose chorus of ELO’s “It’s A Living Thing.” That’s about as bombastic and sappy as you can get — where prog, classic rock and disco come together in a glorious union of melted cheese.