Teen Spirit | Max Minghella | April 12, 2019
Like a good pop song, Teen Spirit is a film that delivers something that seems familiar and doesn’t quite break new ground but still finds a way to to do its job and have a good time. It’s also the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella (The Social Network, The Handmaid’s Tale), son of director Anthony Minghella. So directing is in his blood and he takes up the task of both writing and directing on his very first try.
Teen Spirit follows the journey of a young girl named Violet (Elle Fanning), a Polish-born 17-year-old living in a humble part of the Isle of Wight where she goes to school and works on her family farm with her single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). We see her longing for something more with a sequence early on where Violet dreams of far-off life while sitting in the grass and scrolling through many of her favorite pop anthems, featuring well-placed songs such as Grimes’ “Genesis”. It’s clear she has bigger dreams and aspirations to be a singer, given her frequent dive bar singing sessions, which catches the attention of Vlad (Zlatko Buric) who is drunk but can’t help but notice the clear talent that Violet showcases as a singer.
All the stars align as the UK Teen Spirit competition has rolled into town, an American Idol-esque competition that will change the life for one lucky performer. Violet sees her chance to make it as a singer and get out of her town, not wanting to spend the rest of her days working low-paying jobs she can’t stand. So she enters the competition and brings along Vlad as her “guardian” in order to participate, wary of what her mother will think.
Minghella’s screenplay doesn’t offer up many if any, subversions of the genre; instead, Teen Spirit pretty much goes as one would expect. It turns out Vlad knows more about singing than he initially leads with and Violet seems to have entered the world of A Star Is Born where she instantly ascends the ranks and finds the sort of success that borders on rather unbelievable. But like films such as Sing Street, this is a minor problem because Minghella knows exactly what it is he’s going for and you just go along with it. As a first time director, Minghella impresses with his ability to frame moments that portray Violet’s emotion and mood. He enlists Autumn Durald, who shoots it with the candy-coated blissful nature of a music video, which, along with the vibrant pop tunes from a fair share of Interscope artists featured on the soundtrack (as Interscope Films produced the film) results in something as delightful and hard to resist as a good pop tune.
To its credit, Teen Spirit breezes by with its 92-minute runtime. It doesn’t waste much time getting to the point but it would’ve been nice for Minghella’s screenplay to offer a more refined and well-rounded look at its characters to really make all of the ensuing action that much more impactful and emotional. We naturally root for Violet because of the unsurprisingly great performance from the reliable Ellen Fanning – proving to be one of the best young actors currently working – she not only delivers the acting chops but can actually sing (also showcased on How To Talk To Girls At Parties). She commands the screen, as does her father-like figure in Vlad, who takes this role to fill the void left by his daughter who he hasn’t spoken to in years. Croatian-Danish actor Zlatko Burić plays Vlad with humor and heart, a combination that the actor nails with ease. They are the only two characters who really feel fleshed out. I would have liked to spend a bit more time with Violet’s mother, her bandmates from school, and Jules (Rebecca Hall), a Simon Cowell-like figure who tries to sign Violet to an early contract before the final round of the contest even begins. Hall is too good an actor to be relegated to the backburner like she is here.
While it would’ve been beneficial to see some more depth and spend a bit more times with these characters, it’s also to Minghella’s credit that he also didn’t add too much unnecessary weight that helped keep things moving along. While some may say Teen Spirit is more style than substance, the style is very much there and elevated, thanks to Fanning, who truly is a star in the making. While it has its fair share of shortcomings, I found myself charmed to go along with the ride with Violet and found myself rooting for her and enjoying her performances, despite not even being much of a fan of pop music myself, a sign that this thing was working on me more than I expected or realized.