In Max Minghella’s flashy debut Teen Spirit, Elle Fanning plays a modern-day immigrant dreaming of a greater existence. Blessed with a ripping set of pipes but stuck in the dead-end-ville that is the Isle of Wight, Fanning’s Violet is a Polack living in the far reaches of the UK who embarks down a well-trod rags-to-riches road, one that makes a point of name-checking iconic humble-beginnings-princess Cinderella. There is little novel that defines Violet’s underdog arc but Fanning’s magnetic turn and a sensitive approach to character development make this poppy toe-tapper an irresistible power ballad, if one you’ve definitely heard play on repeat since the advent of film.
As if trapped in a music video, first-time filmmaker Mingella (The Handmaid’s Tale) smothers the film with a highly stylized technicolor sleekness that starkly contracts the monochromatic, hay-blasted roots of the feature’s protagonist, the daughter of a single mom, living on a farm they struggle to afford, friend to horses and dive bar urchins alike. When she’s singing, Violet’s real world melts away into the backdrop of pop star bling bling, her troubled home life and real-world sensibilities fading when she enters a teen talent competition that promises a big audience and a bigger record deal.
Fanning carries the film on her competent shoulders, bearing the brunt of the movie’s straight-and-narrow appeal. Whether she’s belting out a teeny-bopper pop song to a huge audience or singing alone in her bedroom, she’s magnetic in the role, a surefire star-making turn were the movie welcomed by a large audience.
As a director, Minghella comes across as a touch try hard – his style overbearing and scattershot at times, which can be exacerbated by Autumn Durald’s in-your-face neon-blasted cinematography. As a writer, his larger narrative fingerprints leave a somewhat ho-hum impression – with the whole underprivileged girl entering a talent competition playing out pretty much exactly as we’d expect – but his attention to character work and some of the more minute, fish-out-of-water elements of the character relationships read as honest and, most importantly, connect when they need to most.
The heart and the soul of Teen Spirit is the strange but symbiotic relationship established between Violet and washed-up former Opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), one of those aforementioned dive bar urchins, who becomes an unlikely guardian and eventual DIY manager for the prospective star. As Violet navigates the trials of teen-pop stardom, Vlad takes her under his wing, trying to shield her from mistakes he knows too well, but unable to wrangle her from experiencing them on her own behalf.
Everything kind of drives towards the predictable conclusion you expect just from watching the trailers and there’s not a lot in Teen Spirit that catches you off guard, except for maybe that overwhelming sense of how well it actually works. This is not the sardonic anti-musical of Patti Cake$ nor is it the blubbery great melodrama of A Star is Born or even the retro throwback-Golden-era charm of La La Land but Teen Spirit embraces the here and now and tells a familiar story through the MTV angle with a clear love for the principal characters driving through its simple “poor girl does American Idol” narrative.
The music, as performed by Elle Fanning – who has a startlingly rich and captivating voice – is kind of helplessly catchy, pulling from a catalogue of hitmakers like Ellie Goulding and Teen & Sara (with additional music from Arian Grande, Grimes, Katy Perry, No Doubt, and Major Lazer). Teen Spirit is kind of like being trapped at a music festival for 14-year olds that eventually gets even the cranky classical music lovers tapping their feet. It just kind of succeeds against odds. Exactly like Violet.
CONCLUSION: ‘Teen Spirit’ is far from a radical reinvention of a musical underdog saga but director Max Minghella uses Elle Fanning’s unwavering cinematic powers to captivate and charm despite its foray down predictable avenues
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