Hunky Dory

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Hunky Dory
"You may be able to see the restrictions of the film's budget, but the talent on display shows no such limitations."

Set against a similar LA street-level backdrop as last year's Sundance surprise hit Tangerine, Hunky Dory takes a similarly refreshing approach to sexuality and gives a comparable sense of what it's like for people who don't have the cash to cruise around in cars or through life.

Michael Curtis Johnson has co-written the movie with fellow feature first-timer Tomas Pais - who also makes a big impression in a central role and is a name to watch. The David Bowie references, aside from the title, and the glam rock style of Pais's bow-legged Sidney, are few, but given recent events are likely to bring the film some additional unexpected but welcome attention at the Slamdance film festival in the US this week.

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Sidney is, by night, a dive bar drag queen, stripped of the usual cliches. He is bisexual and has a tendency to sleep around in a bid to make some spare cash but he is the least camp drag queen I've seen on screen in a long time and the film is concerned with his entire personality not his sexual preferences. Better still, despite no longer being with the mother of his son George (Edouard Holdener), his relationship with the little guy is positive and as stable as it can be in the circumstances. In short, Sidney knows who he is, even if he isn't entirely sure he likes what he knows.

The less salubrious aspects of his lifestyle are brought sharply into focus when his son arrives on his doorstep unexpectedly and with no explanation. The one thing that he has kept from George is the way he makes a living - preferring instead to romanticise his status to 'up and coming rock star'. We follow the pair through a week together - days ticked off on intertitle cards - as George sleeps with a variety of old flames (male and female) and new encounters, while trying to forge a friendship with prostitute Bunny (Nora Rothman), given that his lack of funds mean sex is out of the question.

Johnson and Pais don't shy away from the realities of Sidney's life, but they don't wallow in them either - with sex scenes playing out in a tragi-comic fashion. Most of the characters he interacts with - including a nicely worked cameo from Morris From America director Chad Hartigan and Chad Borden as a warm-hearted and flamboyant terminally ill drag queen Diomedes - are also painted in a broadly positive light.

Cinematographer Magela Crosignani does a lot with what must have been a rock-bottom budget, particularly in the dive bar scenes, which are infused with warmth that gives a sense of a thrill Sidney gets from performance, in contrast to the seedy setting. Pais brings a thoughtful energy to Sidney, upbeat but with occasional flashes of quiet desperation and his trajectory feels measured, realistic and, as with all good stories, emotionally satisfying. You may be able to see the restrictions of the film's budget, but the talent on display shows no such limitations.

Reviewed on: 25 Jan 2016
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Hunky Dory packshot
A dive bar drag queen questions his lifestyle after his son arrives on his doorstep.

Director: Michael Curtis Johnson

Writer: Michael Curtis Johnson, Tomas Pais,

Starring: Tomas Pais, Edouard Holdener, Chad Borden, Nora Rothman, Chad Hartigan

Year: 2016

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US

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Any Day Now
Tangerine