Movies about pop stars have recently been all the rage. Last year audiences were graced with Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody – all within the span of a few months – so what could first-time director Max Minghella’s singing competition success story, Teen Spirit, offer us that that we haven’t seen before? The answer is very little, aside from Elle Fanning’s lovely singing voice.
Teen Spirit is the story of Fanning’s Violet Valenski, a young, alienated young woman living on the Isle of Wight with her single-mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), who is an immigrant from Poland, and deeply religious. Blonde, beautiful, and intriguingly reserved in manner, Violet is an outcast at school, and a target for the resident Plastics. In any case, Violet keeps mostly to herself, waiting tables, hanging out at the family farm with her white horse, and jamming out to pop tunes in her bedroom happy place with headphones on. In her free time and against her mother’s wishes, Violet sings weekly at a local bar, usually empty with the exception of a few indifferent deadbeats. It’s here that Violet meets ex-opera singer, Vlad (Zlatko Burić), one of her few champions, as well as her eventual singing coach, manager, and father/surrogate disguised as creepy van man.
When national singing competition “Teen Spirit” makes a pit stop at the Isle in hopes of recruiting a new contestant, Violet dances and croons her way into the open slot to the embittered surprise of the mean girls. As her confidence rises, she even manages to make new friends in a cute boy and his bandmates. Minghella traces Violet’s ascent through a sort of training montage that choreographs all of these positive developments in sync, a destiny fulfillment of sorts that Fanning’s flawed but artificially sympathetic pixie pop queen in-the-making dares you to deem unworthy.
Like any good reality singing competition, the best parts of Teen Spirit are the performances, which Minghella peppers with rapid cuts to Violet’s memories, and douses in glossy, kinetic neon lighting. At best these sequences have the effect of a particularly impactful music video, a manufactured profundity that should cause even the steeliest among us to break out in goosebumps. On the other hand, so much of the story is painfully formulaic that Minghella’s efforts read like a behind-the-scenes look at a contestant on The Voice, albeit with more naturalistic flair than cable executives would ever allow.
Nothing about the rise of underdog Violet Valenski feels new. She’s a small-town girl with big talent whose one major obstacle is essentially “finding” herself as the key to unlocking her true potential on stage. That the movie even tries to place cheap roadblocks in the form of boy trouble and daddy issues reads too obviously as artifice, keeping audiences from developing any sort of emotional commitment to her character beyond the fact that she’s simply the one we happen to know best. You won’t have a bad time following Teen Spirit’s breezy hour and a half of cookie-cutter dramatic beats, but like the finale of any reality show spectacle, the winner’s name will promptly fade into oblivion once the TV is turned off.