The rise to fame story’s moves so familiar that audiences can dance it blindfolded. Enter the undiscovered talent, raw but passionate. Their circumstances are grim. There may be poverty, family tragedy, and/or abuse. Still, they cling to the hope that music might save them. They find that one person in the room who believes in them. They rocket into the spotlight. But fame is not easy. Sex, drugs, and rock star decadence comes hard on the heels of glamorous makeover that turns them from ordinary to icon. Then–somewhere amid the glitz and grit–they trip through an important life lesson that gives the audience a cozy — even smug — sense of satisfaction. In his directorial debut Teen Spirit, actor turned writer/helmer Max Minghella plays off clichés, offering a drama that is as surprisingly intimate, beautiful, and bittersweet.
Elle Fanning stars as Violet, an English teen, who splits her time between school and helping her single-mom pay the bills. But when she can steal away an hour or two, Violet escapes the doldrums of her crumbling farm and lackluster waitress work to take to the stage and sing her heart out. The stage is a humble one, an open mic at a dingy dive bar where her heartfelt renditions of dance-pop songs by Sia and Robyn are of little interest to the middle-aged drunks, save for one. When the titular televised singing competition (think American Idol) comes to her confining corner of the Isle of Wight, Violet is desperate to audition. Knowing her mother will refuse, she turns to a drunken, down-and-out opera singer named Vlad (Zlatko Buric).
Vlad and Violet’s alliance is initially mercenary and uneasy. She needs a grown-up to sign the competition permission form an a mentor to teach her technique. He agrees on the condition he will make money if/when she does. But the guarded girl and the brash vagabond form a friendship by clumsily knitting their broken hearts together. Violet was abandoned by her father. Vlad is estranged from his daughter. In each other, they find a bond they desperately crave, yet aren’t totally ready to handle. Both battle self-doubt and fear of rejection, which makes them a volatile duo. Instead of romanticizing a troubled relationship — as the latest cover of A Star Is Born does — Teen Spirit leans away from the showbiz suspense and digs into this deeply flawed duo.
This enchanting indie rejects the glossy theatricality of studio dramas, leaning into a gruffer, more restrained performance style that better suits its scarred heroes. Yet both deliver a crackling intensity. Fanning and Buric are chaotically captivating together. Whether sulking or singing, Fanning vibrates with angst, earnestness, and an aching vulnerability. Buric is her foil, gruff and warm with a hint of mischief. The showstopper moments come when Fanning sings. Even early on, there’s an acute pain as she belts out her beloved “sad songs.” Thankfully, Minghella respects these pop ballads, relishing in their power with a pulsing sound mix and careful close-ups that allow Fanning to sell even their smaller moments. In her finale performance, she is positively electrifying, making each refrain sting like a lash thrashed against our pulsing heart. But it’s the pair’s moments of gritted teeth, whispered apologies, and teary eyes that ground Teen Spirit‘s emotional stakes and make it sing. While the quest is Violet seeking a record deal, the heart of the film is this rough-and-tumble relationship, which is exactly as abrasive yet abruptly tender as you might expect from an angsty teen and a chatty drunk.
Minghella rejects the predictable spectacle studio musical-dramas, wisely ducking the trap the low-budget Vox Lux set for itself. This approach better suits his themes, which are not ultimately about fame and fortune and greed. So there is no need for Violet to fall into the full rock star stupor. A stumble through a bit of underage drinking and a questionable hookup works well enough. There’s no sweeping fashion fantasy either. While other contestants gussy up with wigs, outrageous wardrobes and flawless makeup, Violet turns up naively defiant in a t-shirt, with a bare face. Her finale look is not a massive transformation, but a slight elevation, a believable step from the girl she was to the woman she hopes to become.
Minghella’s choices to keep his focus keen and Violet’s world small, gives Teen Spirit a refreshing sense of spontaneity. By beginning with a first act that plays by the rules, he eases us into a false sense of toe-tapping. Then the beat drops and the tropes don’t play out exactly as we’ve been trained to expect. We’re urged to not just nod along but tune in and really feel it. Put simply, Teen Spirit totally rocks.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com