Hollywood certainly knows the power of a good song – look no further than the recent twin Best Picture nominations for Bohemian Rhapsodyand A Star Is Born for evidence of that. But rarely has the cathartic power of straight-up pop been captured and translated visually as it is in actor Max Minghella’s (The Handmaid’s Tale) directorial debut, Teen Spirit.
Much of that success can be credited to a powerhouse performance by Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon). Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a Polish-born teenager living with her single mother on the Isle of Wight. Overflowing with teenage dissatisfaction, Violet is quiet and withdrawn, only shining on the occasional karaoke night at a local pub. When a teen singing competition show arrives on the island for auditions, Violet goes behind her devout mother’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) back – she’d rather that Violet devoted her singing voice to the Lord – and enlists a washed-up opera singer, Vlad (Zlatko Buric), to pose as her uncle to get around the competition’s rules about guardianship.
If you’ve ever seen an underdog movie, be it The Karate Kid or The Mighty Ducks, you know how this story goes. But Teen Spirit‘s strength lies in how it goes about bringing life to this particular iteration of the age-old story. For the most part, the film is shot in a naturalistic style, using handheld cameras and faux natural lighting to create a sense of realism. But when Violet gets the chance to sing, the cinematography switches to the glossy, neon-lit hyperrealism of music videos and commercials. Director Max Minghella nails these sequences, cutting them with rapid cuts of what’s going through Violet’s mind as she uses other people’s songs to express her own emotions. As a result, the musical sequences are raw emotion, drawing moisture from the eyes of all but the most stonehearted. Fanning – who does all of her own singing – ends up outshining many of the original artists she covers here.
While those musical sequences deserve to be seen on a big screen, the story framework that supports them falls short in places. The script – also written by Minghella – falls into some well-worn ruts that do the characters a disservice. As Vlad, the fake uncle and later manager of Violet, Buric delivers a charming performance that gets bogged down by pro forma conflict between mentor and protégée that feels more like the ticking of a box than an actual plot point. And a brief period where Violet’s fame – if we can even call it that – results in some self-centered behavior is painfully clichéd, though thankfully brief.
For all of its faults, though, Teen Spirit is a film with plenty of charm on its side. As soon as we see Violet go through her ho-hum existence while bumping Grimes in her headphones, it’s hard not to root for her. And even though the end is telegraphed from a million miles away, it’s hard to think of a recent film with as satisfying an ending as this one.