To steal from the song that inspired this film, Elle Fanning Dances on Her Own in Teen Spirit. She sings, dances, acts and speaks with a British accent in Max Minghella’s directorial debut, and she does a jolly good job of it all.
Violet Valenski (Fanning) is 17, she lives on the Isle of Wight, a small island much like Catalina Island. It’s a popular holiday spot for Brits who visit the island for its sandy beaches. Violet lives on a small farm with her single mother played by Agnieszka Grochowska. If she’s not at school or helping on the farm and around the house, she is working at the local pub, often getting up on stage to sing a song or two entertaining the locals. Her choice of material doesn’t pull them away from their pint. But boy, does she have talent. So, it’s only fitting that when the biggest talent competition show arrives in her town for local auditions, she finds herself entering.
Minghella takes us along as invested companions on Violet’s journey. We follow her as she heads to London for the live shows, we follow her as she meets an unlikely friend in Vlad played by Zlatko Buric. Vlad offers to give her a ride home one night after she’s finished working in the pub, and at first we think he’s going to be bad news for her. There is that very brief moment where we go down that path and think he’s got ulterior motives — due to what we’ve all been exposed to through TV and other movies, we’re conditioned to sense danger — but Vlad ends up helping her in more ways than one. The friendship and mentoring that develops is a great dynamic. Vlad is a one-time opera singer whose age and experience has taught him life lessons that he generously passes on to Violet. He also has an estranged daughter living in Paris, serving to strengthen the bond he and Violet have.
Filled with classic pop hits like Aqua’s Barbie Girl, the familiar music is re-enlivened by Fanning’s vocal performances. From Robyn’s Dancing on My Own to Annie Lennox’s Little Bird, one thing is clear: she is a revelation. Minghella has said Dancing On My Own and not talent competition shows were the inspiration for this film and we can see there’s a clear love in the way his soundtrack helps define its lead character. Every song he uses is invigorating and fits Violet’s character perfectly, the songs ARE her soundtrack. In one scene, Fanning bops around her bedroom to Gwen Stefani’s I’m Just A Girl and Minghella’s camera follows her like a dance partner, dipping and swirling in unison. The sheer joy that Fanning elicits is contagious. She is just a girl.
Let it be noted, Violet is far from your cheesy bubblegum popping teenager. There are no fake smiles, no fake enthusiasm. There’s no massive transformation as she travels down to London. She simply wants to win, and her ambition feels genuine since we know where it comes from. She wants to succeed because music frees her vitality from her usual introverted, shy self. Her mother tries her best to warn her of the disappointments of life — she has experienced her own share of letdowns — but Vlad encourages Violet to follow her dream and inspires her because he believes in her. Rebecca Hall appears the Teen Spirit judge who also believes in Violet and sees her potential. Hall’s character arrives with something that could truly alter the course of Violet’s success. Her character is crafted so as not to be the villain. There are no villains in Teen Spirit.
Autumn Durald Arkapaw, Teen Spirit’s director of photography, frames her scenes with enormous attention to detail, lighting many of the musical performances like vibrant music videos. While Minghella show us the reality of what happens backstage, whenever Violet emerges onstage it’s a luminous contrast to the not-so-bright skies on the Isle of Wight
At its essence, Teen Spirit is truly Elle Fanning’s movie. A radiant showcase to display her remarkable talent, Fanning has crafted a character who stays authentic to who she is until the end. When she’s asked during her auditions, “Why did you enter this competition?” Violet replies, “I want to sing.” She doesn’t run around with a clique, she doesn’t spend hours on her makeup. It’s a pure, honest portrayal of a shy teenager who has one hell of a gift. Fanning’s talent opens a Pandora’s box of turbulent emotion that lets her portray a young woman whose feelings run deep, lending surprising rich texture to her performances.
Immensely entertaining, with plenty of heart. this is a film that continues to conjure up happy thoughts days later. Long after seeing Teen Spirit, the soundtrack is on constant rotation in this house. I have to thank Max Minghella. His love for the song, Dancing on My Own finally made me jump on the Robyn bandwagon.
The killer soundtrack is a wall-to-wall charmer, and that’s only a part of what make Teen Spirit the perfect springtime lark. Chronic naysayers need not apply. Don’t Kill This Vibe. This exuberant film will reignite your Teen Spirit, if you let it. In his thoroughly effective directorial debut, Minghella’s love for this music is contagious and his sensitive instinct for the complexities of teenage dreams creates a portrayal of restless youth and boundless ambition that you won’t soon forget.
Teen Spirit goes on wide release April 19, 2019