Director: Max Minghella
Writer: Max Minghella
Cast: Elle Fanning, Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Burić
Distributor: Bleecker Street
Rated PG-13 | 92 Minutes
Release Date: April 12, 2019
It’s a story that we have all seen before. An unfounded talent, usually from a small town, goes mostly unnoticed, who goes on a meteoric rise to fame once they are discovered. These stories aren’t confined to fictional TV shows or movies. Sometimes they are real life to some. And to others, we get to see it play out on reality TV. Such is the premise for Teen Spirit, starring Elle Fanning as a shy young small-town girl who has dreams of stardom, and accomplishes that dream in the most unorthodox of ways.
And yet, despite her journey to stardom, the execution of it all looks and feels safe, watered down, but soaked in neon as to try to make it more appealing and contemporary. It doesn’t quite work from beginning to end, but it is an admirable directorial debut for Max Minghella, who uses very familiar themes and old storytelling techniques to bring us a barely average story that is backed by Fannings’ performance. My full review below.
Teen Spirit centers on Fanning, who plays Violet, a young Polish girl living on the Isle of Wight, who, with her mother, works to make ends meet on a small farm and at a local bar. Violet, who is overlooked by the small community, finds solace through music, and finds herself singing in open fields, her bedroom, and at another local bar singing to a mostly empty room that is occupied by drunks or angry management. It’s there that Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a former operatic sensation, offers to help Violet get on a singing tale by acting as her legal guardian and signing off on all her consent forms.
Violet does meet a few obstacles along the way, runs through the usual “it sounds like I won’t advance to the next round,” gets a lucrative offer, tempted with a variety of vices, has rivals, meets corporate who try to undermine her or manipulate her by taking advantage of her naivety tropes. It’s all there. We’ve seen it before. The only difference is that it is more contemporary because it uses familiar premises like reality TV, social media, and pop chart hits.
And yet, despite some of those glaring flaws, Fanning and Buric’s performances carry this film. We get to see a nice rise to fame story through Violet, who will also experience the dark side of fame and the temptations of those vices that come with it. At the same time, Vlad has a redemptive arc that deserved more attention. The film gives him this redundant fall from grace backstory that we have all heard before. And he’ll use Violet as a redemptive outlet to make up for his past mistakes by giving Violet the chance to win. Although, it is something we have seen before, as he warns Violet not to give into any temptations or accept any lucrative offers because if she does, she will end up like him.
Still, there are a few things to like. For one, Fanning juggles a lot of responsibilities in this film, having to speak a foreign language, use an accent, sing, dance, and play the role of Violet. That meteoric rise to fame consumes her almost entirely after she gets a taste of what that could be like. But it’s all formulaic and touches on all the signature things that come with stories like these. The only twists are that it makes use of social media and the popularity of reality TV.
These characters have a chance at newfound life and will use the talent show as a means of achieving that dream. But, like most of these films, it also exploits their selfishness and desires. For Violet, it is a chance to leave the life she is living completely behind her. Her eyes light up as soon as she is offered a large deal even before she has a chance to prove herself and show her talents on the talent show. At the same time, her mother confines her and condemns her for singing these songs instead of the usual hymns. Of course, Violet has a chance to prove her worth and shows that through her they can have a better life. But it seems more like an afterthought as the film on that aspect pretty quickly.
For Vlad, he sees Violet as a means to get rich as well, and says he will take 50% of anything she makes if she wins the show. Though his backstory is tragic, the film almost forgets about how he got to where he is at now. It does give us a glimpse of the history he once knew through passing glances and quick scenes, but its not nearly enough to have us fully care about his story or journey to redemption.
Teen Spirit is just an okay film that doesn’t add anything to the rise to fame stories that we have seen before. Nor does its flaws take away from those stories. It just goes through the motions. Like a forgettable season of these talent competition reality TV shows. There are just so many of them. None of them have any real distinguishing features that make it particularly special or interesting. They just exist to fill some sort of void or take advantage of people’s fascination with these sorts of shows.