Somebody said we got a new pop saga on the screen. Does it love us better than the slew of others can? Turns out that actor and now first time director Max Minghella has made one by the numbers that follows every beat we’re familiar with and almost nothing more. Teen Spirit follows a very familiar pop ascension narrative trajectory to acceptably involving results, relying largely on its ultrahip playlist of pop covers. However, the real draw is its headliner Elle Fanning, giving us a new facet to her reign as cinematic teen ingenue.
Fanning, as absorbing as ever, stars as Violet, a rural farmgirl in England with big dreams too far away from her reality. Living under the conservative watchful eye of her Polish immigrant mother, her only escape being the comfort of her iPod and sneaking off to local bars to perform on karaoke night. But when television singing contest Teen Spirit comes to town, she secrets off to the audition with the help of former opera singer and drunkard Vlad (played by Zlatko Buric). From here begins a whirlwind for Violet of dashed and reinvigorated hopes as her star quickly rises among her local community and producers ready to take advantage.
Though Teen Spirit forgets to explain the mechanics of its central competition to sometimes confusing results, it does establish the kind of isolative myopia that such a meteoric rise can create in the average teenager like Violet. She is so far from the system that she enters, with the spotlight only thrusting her mental state and the film’s perception further inward. If all of the beats that occur in the film’s sprite 92 minutes are the expected ones, as if it was some pre-engineering pop song blurring into its other clones, this film does stand out for making the journey a very interior one.
If anything, the film arrives as a successful if unambitious first feature from Minghella. The musical sequences, drawing keenly from the likes of Robyn and Ellie Goulding, could be directly lifted as chic music videos and taken as internal fantasies as Violet finds her confidence as a performer. It’s a stylish film of alternating from the murky hopelessness of rural life to the glorious bisexual lighting of the stage. Should Minghella be merely cutting his teeth on a simplified story, the next feature might be more investing if it takes such swoons with its narrative.
But the most exciting element at play here is Fanning, taking center stage in ways that she hasn’t always been afforded. If there is any wish for deeper longing in the film, it is found entirely in her quiet expression. What might be familiar on the page with Violet’s circumstance is always real and subtly enhanced in Fanning’s hands. While she has often delivered an enigmatic presence on screen, here she takes that to the max in a way that makes a believable and fascinating pop star. Add this to the list of receipts that confirms her as one of the future’s major actresses: Fanning can really sing.