“Teen Spirit” tells a story you’ve seen a thousand times before, but one that people will keep telling each other until we all believe it. In some ways, it’s as ancient as a fairy tale — a Cinderella fable about a shy girl from a small town who finds her voice and takes on the world. In other ways, the film is inextricably of the moment, set in the neon world of TV singing competitions and scored to the likes of Robyn, Elena Goulding, and Ariana Grande.
What’s so brave and exciting about Max Minghella’s directorial debut is that it refuses to compromise on either end, a sweet pop spectacle at once both proudly generic and unafraid to be itself. It’s a risky approach that prioritizes blunt feeling over a richer experience, but sinewy direction, dazzling cinematography, and a revelatory lead performance from Elle Fanning (does she give any other kind?) help this small wonder grow into a counterintuitively unique modern fable that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Not bad for a movie that’s basically a glorified ad for Interscope’s stable of artists, and boasts a new song produced by Jack Antonoff as one of its primary selling points.
In the span of a single Grimes song, we learn everything we need to know about Violet (Fanning). A quiet 17-year-old girl who lives on the Isle of Wight with her Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), a beautiful horse, and an iPod full of faraway dreams, Violet spends most of her free time working at a dingy restaurant, and trying to avoid the mean girl who rules her school. On some nights, without telling anyone, she sneaks off to sing her heart out at the local watering hole for a small audience of drunks. Vlad (Croation actor Zlatko Buric), a former opera star who might be the drunkest of them all, takes an interest in the girl. And when an “American Idol”-like singing competition called “Teen Spirit” decides to cast a light on the island and hold auditions there for the first time, it’s Vlad who Violet asks to drive her there, because she knows her mother never would. And so begins an improbable run that takes our young heroine all the way to the bright lights of London.
Violet, it turns out, has one hell of a voice — and Fanning does, too. It can be a reedy instrument, and the actress isn’t going to be confused for Lady Gaga anytime soon, but her talents are perfectly suited for pop confections like “Dancing on My Own.” Not only that, but she’s able to make space for her posh British accent in every song, and even carve out some room for herself. It’s more than a little hard to swallow that her path to the top is so quick, or that Violet doesn’t have to bust out some serious Christina Aguilera virtuosity in order to make it there, but it works for the movie. This isn’t “A Star Is Born” (if that movie only has one foot in the real world, this one barely has a big toe). Violet sounds like we do, only much better.
Minghella, a notable actor whose father was born on the Isle of Wight (and was a rather accomplished filmmaker in his own right), has no trouble feeling his way into this story with the broadest of strokes. The writer-director relies on the music to pull us into Violet’s world — watching her thrash and shout along to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in her bedroom tells us more about who she is and what she’s feeling than any amount of dialogue ever could.
“Teen Spirit” is paced at a dead sprint, and and doesn’t have quite enough story to fill out its brief 93-minute running time, but the whole thing is so rooted in the basic primacy of emotion that it hardly seems to matter how few specifics we get about what happened to Vlad after his career went south, or how little we learn about Violet’s relationship with her mom, or how much is left unsaid about the kids in her backing band (there’s a complicated quilt of crushes between them, but details are left deep in the background). The music and locations are specific so that the characters don’t have to be — viewers can take the movie on its own terms, while also projecting themselves onto it.
Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, the unsung genius who shot “Palo Alto” and a bevy of killer music videos for the likes of Janelle Monáe and Solange Knowles, is instrumental in helping Minghella to thread the needle between those two modes. She inflects Violet’s world with glossy accents and dashes of epic drama; the nightlight at her deserted bus stop spreads long beams of light that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hype Williams video, while the field outside of her house is magic enough to work for Terrence Malick. That prettiness is all the more important because Minghella is deathly afraid of easy sentiment, a fear that sometimes convinces Fanning to fold into her character, and leaves the film with virtually no readable emotion whatsoever.
There’s an unreal sense of wish fulfillment to Violent’s journey, and “Teen Spirit” doesn’t shy from it. It’s too thin and slippery to take it literally, but if you think of Vlad as a paunchy, alcoholic fairy godmother who you can smell from the other side of a room, the film begins to make a certain kind of sense that should prove especially compelling to younger audiences. The film is a bit seduced by our collective misunderstanding of talent, which is a birthright that we treat as a virtue, but his debut works as a story about the sustainable power of self-confidence, and how it sometimes only takes one person to help push you to where you’ve always wanted to go — or to drive you there. It almost doesn’t matter how good a singer Violet really is, or if she manages to win the big competition in the end. All that matters is that she finds the courage to reevaluate the distance to her dreams. They’re always at least a little bit closer than you think.
“Teen Spirit” premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution,