“Teen Spirit” has neither the most original title nor concept for a film, but there is still a special quality in how it looks and sounds. Elle Fanning stars as Violet, a shy teenager living in the U.K.’s Isle of Wight, who summons the nerve to audition for a televised singing contest. The pop soundtrack and cinematography give the film the feeling of a music video, which is appropriate, and more importantly, entertaining, and Fanning’s singing is remarkable.
This is the directorial debut of Max Minghella, a young actor who is also the son of Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”), and he also has a distinct artistic eye. Substituting the carefully wrought period details of the elder Minghella for delicately rendered personal details of a contemporary teenage girl’s life, “Teen Spirit” is an unusually lovely film. The subject matter just happens to be pop music and a glitzy “American Idol” kind of international contest.
Violet lives a quiet and financially strained life with her mother, a Polish immigrant, and her creative outlet is singing at a bar for a few drunks. One of these drunks, Vlad, ends up an unlikely figure in her life when the TV show “Teen Spirit” comes to town and Violet auditions. When permission from a guardian is required to move ahead in the competition, she substitutes Vlad for her mother, who thinks the church choir is perfectly adequate for her singing ambitions. It turns out Vlad is not just a drunk with a van; he was once a successful opera singer.
A straightforward Cinderella story, the reticent but talented Violet moves, dazed, ahead in the competition, until she is a finalist, bound for London, with her schlubby manager Vlad in tow. It’s all rather tacky but the film gives Violet’s dream dignity because it is hers, and the film respects her character. “Teen Spirit” accepts potentially silly teenage fantasy with utter sincerity, and Fanning rises to the occasion so that, perhaps against your better or more tasteful judgement, you are deeply involved in a rather predictable story.
In a way, this is almost like a modern retelling of a familiar myth, a very contemporary treatment of a straightforward, rags-to-riches trajectory. Yet Fanning convinces, and beguiles, and above all, sings. All of the songs she sings are pop songs, nothing original, everything you’ve heard before. Much like the story itself, it is her version that makes it count again.
Her portrayal of teen longing is heartbreakingly delicate; the naive importance she gives to pop music is a vital part of what makes her portrayal so moving. Some of us might be too old to remember what it felt like to care that much about a silly song, and that is what gives the character such urgency and authenticity. Violet is vulnerable and lonely and in pain; her home life is precarious and her father is absent.
The outcome of her shot at fame is not as important as the character portrayal, and the cinematic expression of the music is unusually beautiful. This film captures some qualities of youth that are almost humbling in their purity and simplicity, as if Minghella himself still has an enthusiasm he might one day be too dignified to express. There is more to it than meets the eye.
“Teen Spirit” is currently available to rent.
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