There is something deeply unsettling about writer-director Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit.” The film, which stars Elle Fanning, is Minghella’s first feature as a director and while it shows flashes of brilliance, they are not carried through. What starts as a fascinating take on a teen from the Isle of Wight entering a national televised singing competition devolves into the most generic of films.
At one point when Fanning’s Violet Valenski sings relatively early in the proceedings, the experience is a transcendent one. Minghella offers a montage of Violet’s life—the good and the bad—as she belts out her song. It is this dream-like representation of how Violet finds the emotional heft to deliver the vocals she puts out. The audience doesn’t necessarily have the backstory on all the things that are shown, but the images are clear enough and provide an outstanding way to perceive how artists are able to summon such power.
Minghella never goes back to that well. No matter how deep Violet goes in the competition or how much a song may matter to her in general, Minghella never again offers that emotional depth.
Instead, he seems to rely on the audience’s understanding of how this genre of movie works. So, there’s Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a drunk man who likes Violet’s singing, and has a surprising backstory and an estranged daughter, and who lives in his van and becomes Violet’s mentor despite his eccentric and unconventional ways. There is Violet’s mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), who loves her daughter but is too conservative to want her daughter to sing publicly and yet eventually accepts her daughter’s desire. There is the sleazy producer-type (Rebecca Hall) who run the singing competition and who doesn’t mind doing some underhanded things to get what she wants. There is the tale of Violet’s father, who left years ago, and who her mother still pines for, insisting on living on the farm where they were before, despite it being too expensive to maintain, because that’s where Violet’s dad will look for them. There are various teen boys who are interested in Violet either as a friend or, perhaps, something more. There are the various mean girls in Violet’s school that make fun of her for being different.
On and on it goes, with the audience able to pinpoint exactly what will happen before it does – this is the moment where Violet drinks and/or does drugs, this is the moment where she realizes the seriousness of what she’s doing, this is the moment where Vlad does the right thing, this is the moment where the boy does the wrong thing. The audience still hangs in there because that montage stays with them. Fanning’s singing is great, but the visual accompaniment that occurs that one time shows that Minghella has the ability to deliver something amazing. He just, as noted, doesn’t do it ever again in this film. Fanning continues to sing her heart out, and the movie is almost worth it based on that alone, but not quite.
When the mercifully brief, it runs under 100 minutes, “Teen Spirit” ends, it does so briefly, and without explanation, cleaning up whatever threads it cares to, and dropping others entirely. It ends just as one would predict, which perhaps is why Minghella doesn’t bother developing some of the plot points that really require additional attention.
Yet despite all its shortcomings, the reason for that unsettling feeling remains clouded. Is it simply that it is clear that the movie could be more than it is, that so many of the pieces are there to make that happen, but it doesn’t? Is it that Fanning is triumphant in this movie which otherwise fails to deliver? Is it the establishment of plot ideas that are then left by the wayside? Or, is it that the amazing montage comes so early and encapsulates an idea so well that it is nearly unfathomable that nothing else remotely approaches that moment?
As with everything, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. If you just want to hear some swell songs and get a warmed over version of a tired story, you could do far worse than this film. If you’re looking for something new and different and wonderful, be careful, “Teen Spirit” will suck you in and spit you out disappointed.
photo credit: LD Entertainment/Bleecker Street