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SXSW Film Festival Day 3: 'Hunky Dory' + 'Someone Up There Likes Me'

Faith Korpi
Minnie Driver in Hunky Dory

Hunky Dory is not just an ode to classic rock and the days of old, but also to American high school movies. Knowing this gave me an entirely different lens.

Hunky Dory

Director: Marc Evans

Someone Up There Likes Me

Director: Bob Byington

Do you realize that the UK doesn’t make high school movies? I hadn’t until director Marc Evans pointed this out and identified it as his reason for making Hunky Dory, which had its North American premiere here at SXSW. It’s the summer of 1976 at a Welsh comprehensive school, and drama teacher Vivienne (Minnie Driver) attempts to fight the general apathy of her students by putting on a play that “both William Shakespeare and David Bowie would be proud of”. That is, a rock opera version of The Tempest.

Hunky Dory is not just an ode to classic rock and the days of old, but also to American high school movies. Knowing this gave me an entirely different lens. (You can’t criticize something for being “just another high school movie” when that is precisely what it sets out to be.) It is an homage to American teen movies like JJ Abrams’ Super 8 is an homage to Spielberg.

To aid that premise (Teens are apathetic? Whaaaaa?), all the stereotypes are here: the popular girl, the outcast, the jock, the rocker… etc. etc. etc. It’s not John Hughes level story or character development (in fact, there are a lot of characters, and I had some trouble keeping them all straight), but from an American perspective, the Welsh charm works in its favor. Funny how we already like movies from the UK, yet here is one trying to be more American.

All of the music and singing was recorded live on set -- no lip-syncing, no ADR. I’m not sure why exactly, as it seems traditional production practice might have been easier, but it is at least an impressive factoid.

I love Minnie Driver, and here she is winning with an excellent supporting cast of teens (Aneurin Barnard and Tomos Harries are standouts both singing and acting).

The movie feels a bit long (although only 109 minutes), but the Bowie-laden Tempest number at the end is a good pay off. Nostalgia works in favor of Hunky Dory; the misty eyed audience member next to me choked out, “That’s the year I graduated high school…” as soon as the credits started to roll. The college girl on the other side of me had a different take away note, “Let’s Google Aneurin Barnard…oh good! He’s not seventeen. Cha-ching!” Something for everyone apparently.

Someone Up There Likes Me -- what a totally bizarre movie this is. I will admit, its selling point for me was the fact that the music was scored by Chris Baio, who is the bass player in Vampire Weekend. Not until later did I find out it was produced by and stars Nick Offerman (a.k.a. Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation). Writer/director Bob Byington (RSO, Harmony and Me), who is also a local, and all the Austin hot spots were fun to see on screen.

So to exemplify bizarre, imagine a story taking place over the course of 35 years, told in five year increments, with a protagonist (Keith Poulson) who never ages in appearance, but his character does in the story. When asked about this in the Q&A, Byington gave a mumbled answer… something about makeup and Poulson, and how it was kind of an accident, but “ended up meaning something I guess”. As I said, bizarre.

Offerman plays Sal, best friend and co-worker to the insanely narcissistic Max (Poulson). Over the course of 35 years, they experience a series of varying entanglements, including each being married to Lyla (Jess Weixler). There are weddings and funerals, hospital visits, affairs, divorce all conveyed in a totally deadpan fashion.

I think that’s what didn’t click for me. Weddings and funerals aren’t light matters, so asking me to make light of such serious issues with little pay off was a hard sell. And when a movie fails to have a message other than “this is what happened”, I can’t help but question the intent of the filmmaker (or whether they even had one). On paper this film may be about life, friendship and love -- yes, but what about life, friendship, and love? I felt awful when it was over… was I supposed to? I enjoyed the female lead (Weixler), the quirky pop music score, and of course Offerman, but the bottom line for me is that this one just falls short.

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