It is the pivotal moment of Teen Spirit, a new pop music coming-of-age fantasia, when Elle Fanning pick up the mic and begins to croon Ellie Goulding. Yet this type of musical expression is one the real-life actor can always recall chasing. And considering during our interview she remembers an audition from when she was four-years-old, that memory stretches pretty far back.
It was during last month’s SXSW Film Festival when Fanning, as well as writer-director Max Minghella and executive producer Jamie Bell, reminisced about their musical pasts, plus their future with the impending release of Teen Spirit. For her part, Fanning says she always loved to sing, even while running around the house and humming to herself.
“I did gospel choir in school, and this thing called Magicals where I sang a solo in ‘All I Want for Christmas is You,’” Fanning says with a hint of nostalgia. “Which is also a lot of pressure when you’re in school and you have to sing in front of your crush or something. That’s a big deal; that’s like a more pressurized moment in time when you’re like ‘Agh.’ You look awkward, that was a big deal!”
It’s also a big deal when her onscreen and budding pop star, Violet, sings in front of silent and entirely silhouetted judges in Teen Spirit. As a new film that allows actor Minghella to transition to directing, the picture walks the line between an understated, grounded reality and a lyrical daydream every time Violet takes the mic. As a young woman who’s grown up in humble means on the Isle of Wight—yet deceivingly speaks with a slightly posh accent as a Polish immigrant—Violet is desperate to become something she is not; she’s desperate to get on a reality television star by singing on the show “Teen Spirit.”
The film’s fairytale narrative meeting real-world immigrant struggles is a personal entry point into Violet’s journey for Minghella. An English talent born to first-generation Brits and accomplished creatives, his father was of Italian descent when he too was born on the Isle of Wight, and his mother is from Hong Kong.
“There’s a bit of a personal connection, because my father grew up there,” Minghella says of the isle where Teen Spirit is set. He later adds, “My parents are both very loud immigrants, if that makes any sense. It’s a huge part of their personality, and it’s just seeped into me. I always feel like I don’t quite fit in.” It is this element that he found made Wight a perfect setting and context for a young woman trying to find herself.
“I think I was interested in the metaphor of it,” Minghella says. “It’s an island, it’s a story about a girl who dreams of the horizon and something that feels impossible, and I just thought the geographic isolation just sort of made sense.”
It also provided Fanning with a remarkable new challenge. The only time she had sung publicly as an adult was a spontaneous moment with a friend at the Montreux Jazz festival in Switzerland. Which is to say, not really at all, save for the screaming-as-singing in punk rock love letter How to Talk to Girls at Parties. In Teen Spirit, she had to learn to sing with an audible charisma while playing a girl struggling with that confidence, as well as the fact she is a first-generation immigrant who can speak fluent Polish with her mother before belting in front of a British audience.
Explains Fanning, “I’ve done the English accent before, but still this one is slightly different, because Max wanted me to lower my voice a bit. So that I was also aware of, just the sound and the tone of my voice.” And when it came to the singing, she had three months of training to prepare for Teen Spirit. “I was curious when you sing and you’re English… those singers, they don’t sound super, super English when they sing. I was thinking with Violet, ‘Well, she probably listens to the American pop singers and wants to not sound English.’ She probably wants to sound more like them. There were a lot of things happening.
“Then the Polish, which was probably the hardest, the most challenging of all three of those [aspects], because it’s a language I never hear at all. But I had this guy, Patryk, he helped me. Patryk with a ‘y’ [Laughs]… And then Agnieszka [Grochowska], who played my Mom, she’s a Polish actress and is incredible. She was on set to keep me in check. It was nice getting to speak with someone who could understand me or she’d say she didn’t understand me.”
It’s an intimate portrayal of an introverted teenager finding herself as the face (for 15 minutes) of a national pastime. Intriguingly, however, the depiction of pop stardom on television is depicted with maximum disaffection. The film studies the pressures of reality TV on Violet while not getting particularly ensnared in the mechanics of the show she’s on. Those judges, the arguable real celebrity personalities of such spectacle, remain faceless.
“I think most reality television is a real study in editing,” Bell says before sheepishly admitting that he watches most of this “trash” across the pond. Not that he hasn’t seen its similarities here too. “I tuned into an episode just the other day of American Idol, and there is something—they can spin these stories, these emotional stories, in about eight minutes. And I found myself on the verge of tears like three or four times with these contestants; there was something so unique in how they can tell something so quickly.”
Minghella points out that they preferred the cinematic language of documentaries in the non-singing moments of the competition, as opposed to the artifice of televised sheen.
“There’s also no higher stakes than being a young person,” the writer-director says. “It’s the most heightened point, emotionally, and I think it’s very much a reflection of that. It’s an embodiment of what Violet is going through as a human being in that part of her life. As filmmakers, we looked much more at concert documentaries and touring documentaries, and that world of it was more interesting to me. The reality of being behind-the-scenes of those places versus what’s presented to us on that screen. We delve into it, we have fun with it, but I’m much more interested in what’s behind the curtain and what we’re not allowed to see.”
You’ll also be able to see it for yourself soon enough. Teen Spirit opened in New York and Los Angeles last week and opens nationwide on Friday, April 19. You can view our Teen Spirit interview in the video above, but if you want to see Fanning impressively go all the way back to recalling her first screen credit from her infancy—Bell marvels, “You’re trying to remember a career that began at two!”—you can click right here.