Teen Spirit, for all its hazy, Instagram filter aesthetic, is a pretty tame pop flick hiding its pedestrian aims under a YouTube content creator’s heavy-handed approximation of style.
Splitting the difference between the schmaltz of last year’s A Star is Born and the arthouse aesthetic of Vox Lux, Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spirit finds its place in the recent spate of movies about female popstardom at the aspirational end of the spectrum. It’s a charming little picture that aims low but still finds its mark.
Set in the present day on the Isle of Wight, the film follows Polish teen Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), an aspiring singer who wants to get away from her shit town and all the people she doesn’t relate to. She and her mother Marla (Agnieska Grochowska) work together as servers at a local hangout spot and relate to one another more like beleaguered roommates than mother and daughter. Marla disapproves of Violet’s dreams, only accepting the money her daughter earns covering pop tunes in dive bars after the requisite amount of protest. It’s an exasperating living situation, to be sure, but it’s pitch perfect motivation to seek escape in the bright lights of fame.
That irascible on-the-noseness of Violet’s plight means that as an audience, we’re primed to relish Violet entering a singing competition called “Teen Spirit UK,” an “X-Factor”-like reality show. This central plot isn’t exactly original or exciting, but it’s such a pleasant change of pace from dour B-roll of Violet’s suffocating homestead that we’re as stoked to escape it as she is! So much so that the oddball relationship she forms with Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed up Bulgarian opera singer turned alcoholic, doesn’t play nearly as creepily as it might in a different film.
In fact, the Vlad plot feels like a placeholder for a new story wrinkle that never quite arrives, choosing to center the film on Violet coming to terms with how inexorably her yearning for stardom is entwined with the gaping father figure maw at core. Vlad comes to represent that absent paternal influence in a way that’s only charming thanks to Buric’s lovable performance, as Minghella’s screenplay just doesn’t have the chops to sell it in the writing.
But as expectably decent as Teen Spirit is as a drama, it’s pretty thrilling as an erstwhile jukebox musical, with Fanning doing strong work covering a litany of pop tracks, from modern classics by Robyn and Ellie Goulding to lesser known cuts from various European artists. If it excels at nothing else, Teen Spirit perfectly captures the transformative power pop music holds for young women, arming Violet with the emotional weaponry necessary to fight through her inner demons.
It’s such a shame, then, that the film doesn’t have more for Grochowska to do as Violet’s mother, since the few moments where Marla really shines and stands up as the matriarch are incredible. Perhaps it’s a reach to suggest that a film directed by the son of English Patient helmer Anthony Minghella might be too concerned with father figures too fully flesh out a centralized mother/daughter relationship, but it’s hard to deny, given the uneven footing Marla and Vlad represent in her life. It’s also hard not to fault a movie for not giving Rebecca Hall’s quietly menacing Simon Cowell stand-in Jules more screen time, as it’s exactly the kind of nuanced villain role she should be getting more of.
Teen Spirit, for all its hazy, Instagram filter aesthetic, is a pretty tame pop flick hiding its pedestrian aims under a YouTube content creator’s heavy-handed approximation of style. It’s a film that trades in a cohesive visual language for the excess of lens flares, strobing lights and moody color grading that evokes the word “cinematic” without embodying it. If Minghella reserved this overblown look for the musical sequences only, it would work like a dream, separating the two worlds of the film. But when the scenes of Violet alone on a farm hugging her horse to a Grimes song look as stylized as the climactic performance, it all just feels like a showy mess. At least the songs are dope and the performances are solid, because those are the key factors saving this from being the middle-of-the-road telefilm it could have been.