by Ken Bakely
There’s nothing wrong with telling the kind of story that’s been told many times before, but in order to stand out, you have to do it with a special quality or flair that can be remembered. Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit is a perfectly serviceable movie about a young person realizing their talents through numerous challenges and the assistance of an unlikely ally, but there’s little to set it apart at a scripting level. Scenes seem to pass by on autopilot, all too aware of our foreknowledge of what will happen. Attempts to comment on contemporary vehicles of fame-building – through social media and TV talent competitions – are largely ignored once invoked. The basic plot setup and journey it follows could probably be recited from collective cultural memory, with only the character names and peripheral details providing variety. Violet (Elle Fanning) is a working-class teenage girl living in a small town on the Isle of Wight. She’s a gifted singer who dreams of a better future, and learns auditions for a singing competition show that are coming through the area. She needs a guardian to accompany her, and she knows that her stern mother, Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska), will see the pursuit as frivolous, so Violet enlists the help of neighbor Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging former opera singer from Croatia who eventually becomes her manager. Violet enjoys immediate success, and traveling to London to participate in the finals, must confront the difficulties of newfound fame and the conflicts that she will encounter on the road to realize her dreams.
From there, not a single element of surprise follows, though the clear energy that Minghella and company bring to the project helps keep our interest, as does the quality of Fanning’s performance. She shines in the lead role, bringing even the most clichéd plot developments and dialogue exchanges with great sincerity and immediacy (and she’s also a fantastic singer). Though Minghella struggles to find an inspired perspective on the story at hand, Fanning excels at creating a compelling arc for Violet, as the character’s shock at her sudden life changes and lack of experience to understand said changes spark the numerous internal and external conflicts which follow. Her work shows that even the millionth iteration of this narrative can still win over audiences, as long as the protagonist always feels like a well-considered human being. Yet the underwhelming approach that the rest of the film brings to her story leave us in the dark. It’s hard to care about Violet’s world as much as we should when it all feels so shallow. Even the biggest difficulties which arise are fixed immediately a few scenes later, leading a movie ostensibly about the tough realities of cultivating talent in a complicated world to feel like it relies on fantasies of pre-ordained resolutions where nothing was ever really in doubt. Teen Spirit keeps pulling back on its own sparks of complexity enough that it feels as vague and oversimplified as the in-universe TV show which shares its name.
We’re left with a movie with unclear motivations on a functional level. What is it trying to achieve? If it’s on a quest to create a feel-good tale safe in its familiarity, there’s definitely merit to that and moments when it gets close, but it’s still challenging to look past the simplicity of the storyline, because a key part of such a movie is the rush and catharsis of seeing everything build up and pay off, and Teen Spirit’s alternately rambling and blustery pace keeps the film from accessing that goal. The uncomfortable possibility here is that it may wind up as a star vehicle in ways it didn’t intend: sure, it was always going to be a showcase for Fanning, but too often that’s realized in the context of how her performance is one of the only consistent positives throughout the entire runtime. Minghella shows demonstrable levels of talent and potential as a filmmaker, and he’s capable of steering through even the roughest or most mediocre of moments. And this particular genre of movie will always endure in some form, and great versions of it will always be possible. But this particular entry falls short when it tends to tell and not show, and remains too close to a predictable and droll middle ground.