A shy teenager dreams of escaping her small town and pursuing her passion to sing. With the help of an unlikely mentor, she enters a local singing competition that will test her integrity, talent and ambition.
Initial release: 12 April 2019 (USA)
Director: Max Minghella
Production company: Automatik Entertainment
Producer: Fred Berger
Cinematography: Autumn Durald
I’m a true believer in the power of a great pop song. Often derided throughout culture (even in a film like “A Star is Born”), pop music can truly express emotion in ways that other art forms do not. The hook disguises the depth, allowing a great emotional undercurrent to reach people in a way other music genres do not. People who write off pop music as disposable simply haven’t heard good pop music. One of the best qualities of Max Minghella’s directorial debut “Teen Spirit” is that it understands the transformative power of a great pop song and uses music by artists like Robyn and Annie Lennox to amplify that theme. Sadly, the film doesn’t live up to the depth of the music that seems to have inspired its existence. Yes, a song like “Dancing on My Own” can inspire someone to follow their dreams and become a pop star, but there’s not enough to “Teen Spirit” beyond that observation—and anyone who’s heard Robyn knows that already
The great Elle Fanning plays Violet, a Polish teenager living on the Isle of Wight with her single mother. She works a job she hates, sulks through school, and generally seems to detest her life. But she sings at an open mic occasionally, and she has a beautiful voice—Fanning did all of her own singing and she does a phenomenal job with the music, further proving she can do pretty much anything. It’s one of those dingy bars in which the person on stage is lucky if even one of the audience members claps. This is not Ally at the club meeting Jackson Maine like in “A Star is Born.” This is a young lady expressing herself to an audience that barely cares. Except there is one person that claps.
That person is a retired opera singer named Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who recognizes Violet’s talent. When a singing competition show a la “American Idol” comes to town, Violet asks Vlad to be her manager/guardian, scared to ask her mom to help. She tries out for the show, and makes it through the first few rounds, which means she’s headed to London for the live TV broadcast, at which point the country will decide her fate. Violet is clearly remarkably talented, and she’s quickly forced to navigate the tricky waters of impending fame to make sure her career doesn’t end before it begins.
The biggest problem with “Teen Spirit” involves the stakes. There aren’t many. We don’t get to know Violet well enough to be overly concerned about her fate. I like Elle Fanning a great deal, and she doesn’t do anything wrong here, bringing more depth and charisma to the part than most other actresses would have, but Minghella never figures out how to get us invested in Violet’s story. It’s the kind of storytelling for which the word ‘generic’ depressingly applies. Violet is a likable character, especially in the hands of one of our most likable actresses, but that’s literally about all that “Teen Spirit” has to offer. It doesn’t have the social commentary of “Vox Lux” or the high melodrama of “A Star is Born,” leaving us with almost nothing in their place. “Teen Spirit” is simply the story of a talented girl who finds a way to use said talents.