It’s a familiar tune: the small-town kid with big talent finally gets their shot at superstardom, assuming they can navigate all the potential pitfalls that come with it. Such is the basic premise for Teen Spirit, a music-fueled teen drama that features Elle Fanning as its onscreen pop star in the making, and serves as actor Max Minghella’s writing-directing debut. The movie earned a generally supportive reception from the journalists who caught its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and for perfectly valid reason. Teen Spirit is a simple yet exuberant coming of age story that, like the catchiest pop songs, successfully infuses an old formula with new life.
Fanning stars here as Violet Valenski, a 17-year old Polish girl who divides her time between going to school, trying to have a social life, and working to help her single mother, Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska), make ends meet in a small town on the Isle of Wight. She also daydreams of becoming a pop singer, and has the talent to make that fantasy a reality… if only someone would give her the opportunity. Sure enough, she gets just that when a world-famous singing competition called Teen Spirit holds auditions in her hometown. And just like in any other fairy tale, Violet get some assistance from an unexpected source in the form of Vlad (Zlatko Buric): a heavy-drinking local who, as it turns out, has some professional experience in this area.
Minghella’s Teen Spirit script follows a pretty clear-cut trajectory from the get-go and never really wavers from it thereafter; even the various obstacles it throws at Violet are typically predictable, as are the ways the film ultimately resolves them. Thankfully, Minghella doesn’t seem to have any pretensions about the narrative he’s weaving here, either, and spends most of his effort on infusing the formulaic proceedings with a real sense of panache, instead. At the same time, one of the movie’s best qualities is the way it takes pop music (however insubstantial it might seem to others) as seriously as its teenaged protagonist does, and never looks down its nose at her or her ambitions. Teen Spirit even manages to quietly subvert expectations at times, like the way its avoids painting Marla as a stereotypical nagging mother, and expresses real sympathy for her concerns about Violet’s pursuit of fame.
Stylistically, Teen Spirit often looks and feels like a music video (in a good way), between its energetic montages – some of which are set to toe-tapping instrumental versions of hit pop songs – and the scenes where Violet actually performs (and yes, Fanning can sing quite well). The movie was shot by cinematographer Autumn Durald, who draws from her experience working on music videos for real-life artists (like Janelle Monáe and The Arcade Fire) in order to express the passion and jubilance that Violet experiences when she sings through the film’s shiny and sometimes hyperreal visuals. Teen Spirit was clearly a low-budget production, but Minghella and his team nevertheless succeed in crafting some genuinely dynamic sequences here, and employ stylistic flourishes like lens flares and quick-cutting to help further spice things up.
For all its glitz and glamor, though, Teen Spirit still ends up telling a fairly basic story and never digs that deeply into its themes about the nature of celebrity (nor the questions that it raises about why Violet wants to be a pop star in the first place). Still, it’s elevated by a combination of Minghella’s direction and the cast’s performances, especially that by Fanning. In addition to her singing, Fanning paints a relatable portrait of an introverted teenager who expresses themselves through their art here, making it all the easier to cheer Violet on as she pursues her dreams. She has also a touching onscreen chemistry with Buric, whose character Vlad is very much the typical off-beat mentor, but a likable version of the archetype all the same. The other cast members (like Rebecca Hall as a music industry figure who immediately recognizes Violet’s potential for greatness) are far less developed by comparison, but are otherwise sturdy and make the most of the material they’ve given to work with.
At the end of the day, Teen Spirit isn’t trying to break the mold so much as it wants to prove that the mold doesn’t necessarily need to be shattered – if you have the right ingredients and enough creativity. In a way, it’s refreshing that Minghella doesn’t overstretch himself in his first-time directing and instead aims to deliver an enjoyably simple crowd-pleasing musical drama that has just enough meat on its bones to avoid feeling like a triumph of flashiness over substance. It might be not a must-see with everything else playing in theaters right now, but Teen Spirit is certainly worth a look at some point and suggests that we can continue to expect good things from Fanning and Minghella alike, on opposite sides of the camera. And yes, you’ll want to give the soundtrack a listen-to afterwards.
Teen Spirit is now playing in select areas and will expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks. It is 92 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking.
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