Nothing too Pitchy About TEEN SPIRIT

Max Minghella’s directing debut hits some pretty good notes

One of the most talked about indies of the moment is Teen Spirit, an earnest and involving tale of an average girl finding the will to make a grab for the dreams which consume her life. Teen Spirit is a well-made offering that should get applause from most of the audiences who turn up to watch it. Yet, it’s hard to overlook the fact that plot-wise, there’s very little that’s outwardly special about it as a film, sticking close to the genre it so very clearly belongs to. At the same time, there are many powerful elements to the film which make it impossible to dismiss. Boasting an impressive directorial debut from actor Max Minghella, another stunning turn from one of today’s strongest young actresses, and an approach which transcends the familiar, Teen Spirit is a true winner.

In Teen Spirit, Violet (Elle Fanning) has dreams of leaving her working class life in an English suburb behind and becoming a singer. But with devoutly religious mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska) trying to keep a roof over their heads, the only outlet Violet has for her singing is a local bar which allows her to take the stage and belt out classics. When scouts from a popular singing competition show announce they’re holding auditions, Violet decides to compete. To her amazement (not to mention Marla’s reluctance), Violet makes the cut and, under the guidance of former opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), embarks on an eye-opening and life-altering journey towards a life she never knew could be hers.

The plot of Teen Spirit is as predictable as can be. In many ways, people have already seen this movie without having even set foot into the theater. No aspect of the plot offers any surprises whatsoever. We see the catty girls who doubt Violet’s ability, her long-suffering mother who doesn’t believe dreams can come true, and the grizzled old mentor who sees glimpses of his own wasted talent in the young protege. When Rebecca Hall’s polished record executive shows up, we know exactly what her M.O. is before Violet does. Audiences know that at some point the film’s heroine will have a cathartic moment with her mother, lash out at Vlad, doubt her talents, and think it’s all over when it really isn’t. The fact that all of these plot points are easy to spot from the next town throughout Teen Spirit doesn’t make it any less of a film. The fact of the matter is that it’s just all but impossible to avoid such storytelling elements when exploring a world as specific as this one.

While it’s easy to list the various standard beats to be found in such a film, it’s the way Minghella plays with them which makes Teen Spirit stand out. One of the most effective is in the lack of sheen to the look of the film. Minghella drapes his movie in a variety of earth tones and crushed colors to create a world which feels authentic all the way through. Acts primping themselves in dressing rooms and the fancy trappings everyone finds themselves in as the competition draws to a close all contain a realistic filter that gives the movie a significant dose of credibility. But it’s in the main character herself where Teen Spirit comes most alive. On paper, Violet’s closed off nature wouldn’t be the most audience-endearing, yet so much about her comes off as compelling. This is certainly true in her song choices, which include such modern favorites as No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” both of which speak to her isolated, solitary nature. Apart from her telling taste in music, it’s the way Violet is seen absorbing every social situation she finds herself in, from audition halls to the main stage, analyzing it and trying to decipher where/if she fits in.

In terms of performance, Teen Spirit is further evidence of Fanning’s soulful capabilities as a totally magnetic screen presence. The film doesn’t provide her with much dialogue, but what she lacks in juicy lines, she makes up for in the physicality she gives Violet and the totally raw vulnerability Fanning so mesmerizingly projects. Minghella gives the actors supporting Fanning equally worthwhile parts, with Grochowska, Buric, and Hall each being given proper moments as they turn in realistically drawn portraits of the kinds of people that would exist in Violet’s journey.

It never once escapes the average cinephile that Teen Spirit is a film by an actor taking a turn on the other side of the lens for what amounts to quite a solid debut. Minghella proves to be his father’s son as he poetically tells a story which one can only assume couldn’t have been further from his own social experience. There’s an intimacy throughout Teen Spirit which could have only been brought to life by someone who understands the power of the cinematic moment. Minghella has some creative fun with musical montages, employing some great editing to move the story along (Violet’s initial audition is the best example of this) in quite bombastic ways. But it’s in the novice director’s embracing of the moments, and his honing in on the special essence within each one, that gives Teen Spirit a voice that’s all its own.

Previous post Unboxing GLASS 4K — Best Buy Exclusive Edition
Next post THE PARTY’S JUST BEGINNING: A Brief Chat with Karen Gillan About her Directorial Debut