Teen Spirit is a stylish debut film
An ambitious directorial debut from Max Minghella, Teen Spirit makes an attempt to use the modern pop music landscape to tell a story of a young woman facing both opportunity and corruption in the entertainment industry. Well worn intellectual territory for sure, and unfortunately for this peppy little flick, no new stones are unturned. Moments of high style are what keep the story moving forward, and while functional, it’s simply not enough. The good news is Minghella shows promise as a writer/director, but his debut feels very much like a first draft. A wealth of narrative avenues present themselves for exploration, but Teen Spirit moves toward the closing credits with a lackadaisical precision. Eyes are on the prize, but the journey is all but ignored.
Elle Fanning plays Violet, an underprivileged young woman with a golden voice. She works as a bowling alley waitress, collecting paltry sums of cash which she shares with her single mother. After work she likes to hit the local bar for karaoke. For a singer in her small town (somewhere in Europe — I don’t know if I missed this info or if it wasn’t there), it’s the only outlet for a vocalist, even one of such promising talent. Things are about to change, however. Teen Spirit UK, an American Idol-esque talent show, is coming to town looking for talent. With the help of Vlad, a local drunkard (and former opera singer), Violet auditions and almost immediately finds success. Temptations begin to present themselves, as do shady business people and pop star colleagues, all of which threaten both Violet’s well being, and her partnership with Vlad.
Where the film succeeds is in its visuals. Minghella shoots the performance sequences like a music video. Pulsating neon lights act as the backdrop while a strobe effect cuts Violet’s motion into a series of affecting snapshots. Intercut with surreal depictions of her memory and imagination, it’s clear that Minghella wants his movie to be kinetic. For the most part it is. Only a handful of the non-musical scenes lack this energy, and even those are cleverly filled with enough visual information to keep the plot moving forward.
Yet this visual information seems to be only thing moving the plot forward. Sure, we can look at the periphery of screen and intuit what dark machinations of the music industry are manifesting, while simultaneously wondering to what degree the emotionally ambiguous Violet is falling prey to it, but that’s quite literally all we get. Violet walks through the film while the plot happens around her. A handful of minor conflicts occur, but none are the result of any character’s actions. Things just sorta happen and all conflicts are rectified as easily as they appear, also without input from the characters. As such, we don’t really get a sense of who Violet is or why she even wants to pursue pop stardom beyond “doesn’t everyone?”
To be fair, I did find myself having an emotional reaction to the relationship between Violet and Vlad. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a starlet/manager relationship in that it is wholesome, caring, and thrives on mutual consideration between the two parties. As individuals the two are non-entities, but together they form a bond that works. When conflicts start to test their friendship, an emotional through-line begins to emerge, but like everything else in the film, this drama is fleeting — corrected hastily and by chance.
But hey, Elle Fanning sings a lot of funky pop songs really well. Even if she does that thing where singers purposefully distort their vowels to sound “deep” she’s still a tremendous talent.
Having recently fallen in love with both Vox Lux and Wild Rose, two movies which aim to subvert the tropes of more broadly appealing fare like A Star is Born, Teen Spirit felt to me like a confused imitator. Like Wild Rose, it attempts to bring this showbiz story to the real world, but unlike Wild Rose it feels very pretend. Like Vox Lux, it aims to show us how predatory a world which treats talented people as expendable commodities can be, but unlike Vox Lux, it doesn’t go beyond simple depiction. Yeah, the music industry is rough, but Violet does okay by simple virtue of being in the right place at the right time 99% of the time. The other 1% of the time she’s waiting out a bit of trouble for a minute or two until things breeze by.
Teen Spirit opens in Philly theaters today.