A film review by Craig J. Koban July 20, 2019


2019, PG-13, 92 mins.


Elle Fanning as Violet Valenski  /  Rebecca Hall as Jules  /  Zlatko Burić as Vladimir Brajkovic  /  Millie Brady as Anastasia  /  Agnieszka Grochowska as Marla 

Written and directed by Max Minghella




Two thirds of TEEN SPIRIT work really well.  It contains a winning lead performance as well as stylish and evocative direction by a rookie director.  The remaining third of the film, though, that regrettably doesn't work is its screenplay, which wallows in a lot of tired underdog formulas that we've frankly been exposed to countless times before.  

TEEN SPIRIT is an inspirational musical drama about a young downtrodden woman trying to attain super pop stardom by escaping from the doldrums of her monotonous and fractured family life.  Everything proceeds with unsurprising predictability throughout TEEN SPIRIT, leaving it feel a bit too thematically simplistic for its own good and lacking in narrative freshness.  But it nevertheless remains seriously well acted and is shot with a lot of stylistic grace, perhaps more so than I was expecting from a script on pure autopilot. 

The terrific Elle Fanning plays a shy and introverted teenager named Violet, who resides in a small village on Isle of Wight with her Polish mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), the latter who lives a deeply pragmatic life of working hard first and having fun a very distant second.  Violet's life outside of home kind of sucks as well: She works a job that she thoroughly loathes, generally takes a dislike to anything at school, and has next to no social life beyond that.  She has one saving grace, though: She has an angelic singing voice that she frequently lets loose at many open mic nights at various establishments around her village.  While on stage, she's a vocal force of nature, but off stage she's basically an emotional wreck of girl.  If only something or someone would appreciate and nurture her talent to allow for her to hit the big time and fully realize all of her potential as a singer. 



Well, fate does, as it's accustomed to, steps in during one of those open mic sessions when she's greeted by one of the few people in the audience that acknowledges and appreciates her skills.  He's Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who informs her that he knows talent when he sees and hears it and wants to take it upon herself to become her mentor and manager (it's revealed that the man himself once had a storied career as a tenor in his own right).  Initially, she rejects Vlad, but when it soon becomes apparent that she'll get no assistance from her domineering mother, Violet decides to let him teach her the ropes, which comes in extremely handy when a British singing competition called Teen Spirit hits the Isle and beacons the young star-to-be to come out of her inhibited shell and become the sensation she has always dreamt of being.  Of course, multiple road blocks impede her journey, some of which include rivalries on the show, her own mother's interference, and the nagging stage fright of appearing on live TV in front of millions of viewers. 

It should be noted that Fanning does all of her own singing throughout the film, and she emerges as an extraordinary talent in this regard, giving several phenomenal covers of classic songs.  What's compelling, though, about her performance is that she not only has to be an utterly convincing singer, but she also has to project the frailties and anxieties that typifies Violet.  She's essentially a small town girl that's not very warm, friendly, or outgoing, which does negatively impact her celebrity persona (she may have a tremendously empowered voice, but with little on-stage personality and charm her chances of mainstream success are slim).  If anything, Violet is an impressionable girl that lives in perpetual withdrawal, with only music serving as her cathartic outlet of release.  Fanning's work here is so layered and authentic that it often helps override the film's scripting deficiencies. 

And one of the big dilemmas with TEEN SPIRIT is that Fanning's performance is far better than the written character on the page.  Violet isn't really developed as richly and fully as she should be here, which has an awful lot to do with the fact that the film is simply too rushed and short to allow for this character to simmer and allow for audiences to thoroughly get inside her headspace.  That's not to say that Violet isn't a likeable persona in TEEN SPIRIT, just one that we really are not given much back story or information on to make us thoroughly invest in her, beyond the screenplay, of course, telling us that she's an underdog that has to overcome insurmountable odds.  Another complication of the film being too abridged for its own good is that it really has no time to say anything compellingly profound about the music industry or talent shows.  I've never thought highly of the multiple music programs like The Voice or American Idol for a variety of superficial reasons, and I also never gained much insight into what TEEN SPIRIT thinks of them either.  To be fair, though, the film rightfully captures the addictively alluring nature of watching these programs and how the most empty minded pop tunes can come expressively to life when sung by just the right person. 

The screenplay here is from Max Minghella, who also serves as director, making his feature film debut.  He's no stranger to the small and silver screen as an actor (he currently can be seen on TV's sensational THE HANDMAID'S TALE) and he grew up in the presence of his Oscar winning director father in Anthony (THE ENGLISH PATIENT).  Whereas potent scripting may not be Minghella's strong suit here, he most definitely makes up for it with the aesthetic flare that he gives TEEN SPIRIT, which helps elevates the triviality of the screenplay conventions.  Visually, this film looks better than it perhaps has any right of being, and even though Minghella and cinematographer Autumn Durald are guilty at times of making many key moments in the film come off like artfully staged music videos, there's still such a kaleidoscope of boundless energy and vivacious color exploding on screen that you're willing to forgive Minghella for being a bit too artistically ostentatious.  Plus, he really knows how to shoot the already limitlessly photogenic Fanning and make her look like a movie star.  

But, yeah, TEEN SPIRIT is so achingly familiar with its story beats, and when it boils right down to it, Manghella's script really doesn't offer much in terms of depth or innovation.  The story goes from point A to B and finally to C with unimaginative precision, and the central conceit of a person from humble beginnings learning to find her inner confidence through the transformative power of the arts is as old as the movies.  Even when the film throws in the great Rebecca Hall, for example, to chew scenery as a seductive and tough talking record exec that drives a riff between Violet and her aging coach it feels like recycled material from other better genre films.  And maybe in comparison to other singer/showbiz themed dramas as of late, like the superb A STAR IS BORN, TEEN SPIRIT doesn't seem to have to drive or nerve to transcend its well worn material in any meaningful or satisfying way.  The film has a memorable spunk, is handsomely shot, and contains a deeply assured leading lady carrying it, but beyond that TEEN SPIRIT has the fleeting entertainment value of a dutifully manufactured pop song that you probably won't be humming in the shower in a week's time.   

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