It’s no secret that Elle Fanning is a captivating presence on screen. In “Teen Spirit,” an indie take on a Cinderella story, she proves to possess not only serious acting chops but an ethereal singing voice and establishes herself as an infectiously exultant vocal performer. I wouldn’t be shocked if the 20-year-old starlet finds herself at the precipice of a second career; her performance of Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” in one of the final scenes of the film is electric, wild and even therapeutic — everything that a pop song, and perhaps “Teen Spirit” aspires to be.
Opening to the bubbly, electronic beat of Grimes’s “Genesis” laid over images of the sublime yet desolate landscape of the British Isle of Wight, Max Minghella’s directorial debut tells the story of a 17-year-old girl with pop star aspirations.
The daughter of a Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), Violet Valenski dreams of being a pop singer a la Grimes or Ellie Goulding but is resigned to singing in church choir, and to a smattering of belligerent old men at a local pub. Vlad (Zlatko Burić), a loveable drunkard who happens to be a retired but once hugely celebrated opera singer, takes note of her talent and insists on being her manager.
When the popular talent competition known as “Teen Spirit” holds an open call on the island, Violet grasps onto her chance to escape her bleak reality and seize her dreams, progressing, with a few hitches along the way, through the various stages of auditions to the televised finals in London. Vlad and Violet form an endearing bond, as he mentors her not only in vocal training but in the more enigmatic qualities of performance as well.
“When you’re on stage, you’re exposed,” Vlad tells her. “Yes, your singing is important. But what they are really seeing is your soul.”
In some ways, it is a predictable, cookie-cutter film about a small-town girl with big dreams, from the gruff, unlikely mentor — think Hagrid if he were a washed-up opera singer — to Violet’s horse-girl roots, to the offer of a shiny yet heavily stipulated contract with a big-time record label. When Violet tells reporters, “I don’t believe in love. Love doesn’t exist,” all of the particularity of Violet Valinski and the idiosyncratic wonder of Elle Fanning is instantly squashed into a two-dimensional archetype of the child of a broken home.
In other ways, however, it is decidedly subversive, and particularly so in its decision to leave a number of different subplots — Violet’s tentative romance with a curly-headed boy in her back-up band, or Vlad’s estranged relationship with his daughter — open-ended. In ignoring these plotlines, the film asks a bold question: Who cares? In the end, Violet gets what she wants. Perhaps none of the other stuff requires a resolution; perhaps it can all be transcended through the joy — so contagiously written across Fanning’s face each time she is on stage — of music, of the assertion of an individual’s power through that which they love most in the world.
While we wish we could see more of Violet’s personality and dig deeper into her psyche, I’d argue that what we see is enough. Each time she steps on stage to perform, we are blasted into the technicolor world of a pop music video, allowing us a glimpse into her world and the transcendent nature of performance. Violet may appear to be an enigmatic protagonist, but when she is onstage, we see her soul, as Vlad says.
The film is also refreshingly realistic about its heroine. While Violet isn’t the most popular or social girl at school, she isn’t an outcast either. Despite her laser-like focus on her goals and ostensible ambivalence towards dating, fashion and more, she is not so wise beyond her years as to be immune to the flirtations of a handsome pop star or the consequences from a night of binge drinking. She also doesn’t go unnoticed by boys just because she is typically seen bare-faced with her hair in a sloppy bun.
While the film may occasionally capitalize on the lo-fi appeal of pink mood lighting and trendy vintage windbreakers — Violet looks like your average Gen-Z art student — to mask a dearth of substance, the aesthetic appeal is irresistibly seductive and inextricable from the substantive claims made by the film about the intangible power of pop.
With a less gifted actress at its center, the emotional heart of “Teen Spirit” may have easily disappeared beneath its twinkly, neon exterior. Bolstered by Fanning’s enchanting portrayal of Violet, however, as well as by an on-the-pulse soundtrack and strong supporting cast, Minghella delivers a film that, if not exceptionally insightful, at least offers a 92-minute pop-suffused thrill, a kind of film reproduction of the obliterative euphoria of a good pop song.
“Teen Spirit” will be in limited release starting April 12.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 8, 2019, print edition. Email Julie Goldberg at [email protected]