It is said the trick to performing is to act like no one’s looking. The invisible distance between mental freedom and physical exactness can be as wide as a chasm, but if you bridge it, then there’s a lovely place to build a career—or set a movie like Teen Spirit. A traditional and even by the numbers yarn about musical self-discovery, the picture still knows what poppy charms lie in the space between illusion and reality, reverie and business acumen. It is Elle Fanning dancing by herself in a bedroom and singing to no one in particular, even as she actually stands rigidly on a stage, recalling that glorious memory of idleness and attempting to manufacture that euphoria again.
In its best moments, Teen Spirit is a snapshot of the appeal of pop music and why there will always be teenagers idolizing its synthesized alchemy—it also is a way for writer-director Max Minghella to transition from acting to behind the camera in a film that provides plenty music video-adjacent fantasias. Fantasias which exist, like the best earworms, primarily to cast some type of fleeting spell.
The story connecting these abstractions could be referred to as a “A British Reality Headline is Born,” as it tracks the improbable but affable ascension of Elle Fanning’s Violet, a struggling Polish immigrant who’s even more displaced due to learning English with a posh accent. In truth, she lives on a dying farm with her mother on the tiny Isle of Wight and dreams of musical stardom by day while singing at a dreary pub at night. Still, she has one fan in the initially intimidating Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed up opera singer who turns out to be more drunk than dread. He’s also Violet’s best ticket off the island when a fictional British reality TV series, Teen Spirit, comes to the village for the first time.
Competing with just about every good looking boy and girl at her school, Violet chases the solitary spot that will allow her to compete for Britain’s next teen icon status in London, and she gets Vlad to train her, much to her mother’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) apprehension. While Vlad claims to only care about his percentage as a manager—all the more incredulously as there is no money to be had in the contest—he soon might be the lone guidance she has to channel her idyllic reveries into a stage presence… all while swimming among a sea of sharks, including a smiling one who’s turned record producer (Rebecca Hall). She too offers a different path with the many sordid perks that come with being a momentary starlet.
As more and more actors become pop stars, at least by way of films set in the music industry, the more mechanical the scripting of a “discovery” film can be. Last year saw our fourth version of A Star is Born and several other indies on the festival circuit looking to revel in the pop star track. Teen Spirit is not nearly so ambitious as other melodramatic flourishes, but it also achieves its goal of telling an archetypal story with a reserved naturalism. Whenever Fanning takes the mic, a stream of surrealistic fancies pour onto the screen and Minghella showcases his visual craft, even in shots of Fanning just staring directly into the camera for an extreme close-up that is both entranced and entrancing.
However, the rest rest of the film favors an understated aloofness, which highlights the thrill of living in lights, even as the turgid world in creating those escapes creep into the frame everywhere else. Minghella shows little interest in the technicalities of his Teen Spirit show-within-a-film. Obviously inspired by American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, and all the rest, the actual rules are as much a blur as Violet’s daydreams. The judges remain silhouetted and perfunctory, and the logistics of how Violet must train for an opening dance sequence with an amalgamation of Harry Styles and Justin Bieber prove irrelevant. The artifice of this “reality” is in actuality suffocating while the songs are aural and visual breaths of fresh air.
The ultimate statement of this approach is signified by a nearly apocalyptic shot of a sick and hungover Violet walking toward the stage for her final performance in an elongated Steadicam frame that is as ready-made for horror as it is musicals. This slight cynicism is what allows Minghella to get away with nevertheless hammering home every beat of a traditional Cinderella story to the film’s glossy-finished end. That and Fanning. While not a natural singer, the young star who previously showed she could cultivate a punk sound in How to Talk to Girls at Parties by screaming into a microphone now uses one to carry a tune.
Like many pop stars, it is less her voice than her charisma that is needed to hit high notes with audiences, and Fanning underscores that talent by being able to shine through a character who must remain green and handicapped by her own insecurities for pretty much the entirety of the movie. Doing so with a convincing English accent that was stiffly learned at an older age makes for a strong anchor to build a stage around.
Among the scenery surrounding Fanning, Minghella places pleasant comedic moments like Violet, her mother, and Vlad talking financial arrangements, as well as in less pleasant blocking of well-worn beats from similr material, such as Violet drinking too much the night before her big show and struggling with the temptation of selling out before she even knows if she has a talent to market.
Like many a pop song, Teen Spirit lacks quite a bit in terms of originality or even significant depth. And yet, its infectious desire to put on a show also, like the better pop tunes, becomes irresitible, save for the grumpiest of curmudgeons. A film tailor-made for the good vibes of SXSW, Teen Spirit should find a groove on the indie circuit well into the summer season.
Teen Spirit premiered at SXSW on March 12.