It's the summer of '76! Sardonic South Wales drama teacher Vivienne (Minnie Driver) is mounting a musical version of The Tempest, imbued with a host of glam-rock staples, from "Sea Breezes" to "Strange Magic" to "The Man Who Sold the World," and the students are starting to feel all hot and bothered. Lead actor Davey (Aneurin Bernard) is trying to cross some boundaries with just-friends Stella (Danielle Branch); Evan (Tim Rhys Harries) is on the verge of coming out to his friends and to Davey, whom he's developed a crush on; guitarist Jake (George MacKay) is feeling up his bassist's sister, Vicki (Kimberly Nixon); and Mandy (Jodie Davis) has woefully begun pining for friendly Evan's physical attentions.
Hunky Dory derives quite a lot of charm out of keeping each character's personal conflicts just that, personal, and the behind-the-scenes bureaucracy of the school system has the true ring of small-town politics. Laurence Coriat's script handles the familiar teen-comedy conflicts (divorced parents, unrequited love, bullying, burgeoning sexuality) with a wiser tone than a handful of similarly themed films (Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland's Opus, to name just two) and even finds some chance for genuine invention, such as the climactic outdoor staging of The Tempest and Vivienne's drunken night with Davey.
Director Marc Evans gives the film a booster shot of nostalgia by lending a honey-like glow to much of the imagery; it's an inviting, warm aesthetic that speaks to Evans's overall timidity. Driver, an underrated performer, gives even the dullest scenarios a kick of energy through her own subtle comic work and earthy liveliness, and the rest of the cast is uniformly solid, playing toward the rock daydream that the script implies, but Evans's monotonous style keeps the film earthbound. It's an entirely watchable and mildly pleasing entertainment, but the fact that Hunky Dory has the unrealized promise of something much more is a total bummer.