Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spiritfollows Violet (Elle Fanning), a seventeen-year-old girl who is stuck in the monotonous and isolating routines of life on the Isle of Wight. Until the day it’s announced that “Teen Spirit”, which is akin to the “make it or break it” talent shows like X Factor and American Idol, is holding auditions on the island for the first time.
When she’s not doodling on her hand in class, working at a local restaurant under the glare of her ill-mannered schoolmates, or helping out her mother around their farm, Violet is singing – most nights at a dingy bar only reached by bus. Her efforts to gain a platform in which to express herself lead her to Vlad, a former opera singer, who we first meet as the sole inhabitant of the bar drunkenly applauding her rendition of “I Was a Fool.”
We’ve seen this story before. The stern parent versus the rebellious child eager to share their musical prowess (or simply, special talent) with the world. The underdog who enlists the help of a decaying old-timer, barely slick with the faint sheen of their former glory. We must watch as they navigate the rough waters on the road to success. It’s a formula done over and over again, the diamond plucked from the rough set upon the stage for all to see, and suddenly the “star is born.” Teen Spirit tags onto familiar tropes and clichés, yet still offers something new.
It feels at times that it could do more, but Fanning’s stellar performance is enough to keep it together. Often, actors stepping into the spotlight in an attempt to possess the glow of their musical counterparts elicit mixed feelings, or at least upon announcement of any such project, a hesitation to be seen. Yet, Fanning is believable and completely captivating to watch. We root for Violet at the end, hanging onto every word as she performs Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” fearlessly prancing about the stage.
The film has a clear aesthetic with the help of cinematographer Autumn Durald. Yet at times, the often highly stylized shots don’t work. For example, sequences of performances, including the climax of Violet’s career thus far, might have benefitted from not being so cast in the dark. While the “Teen Spirit” competition may be an edgier incarnation of the talent shows we know in our world, performances broadcast around the world are typically better lit to showcase their multifaceted talent. Yet a similar darkness is maintained throughout the rest of the film, and thus, its look is what it is.
Nevertheless, Minghella has created a somewhat sturdy addition to the recent string of musical films (A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, Bohemian Rhapsody), with more on the way. While it may not be for everyone, Teen Spirit is a familiar and fun twist on the tale accompanied by a soundtrack saturated with the shiny and sweet sounds of pop music. However, without Fanning’s Violet, it wouldn’t be half as good.
Teen Spirit is currently out in theaters everywhere.