Review: Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit is a mainstream movie filtered (or squeezed) through an indie lens. It tells the story of Violet, a shy 17-year-old high school student who enters a local singing competition and ends up making a splash on a British television show that resembles – and consequently satirizes – the likes of American Idol, X Factor, and Britain’s Got Talent. If you enjoy that genre, then Teen Spirit should lift your spirits, however fleetingly, thanks in large part to its talented lead, Elle Fanning (20th Century Women, The Neon Demon) who really can sing!

Violet goes from introverted small-town girl from the UK’s Isle of Wight to potential pop sensation with the help of a washed-up opera star named Vlad (Zlatko Buric). Vlad is one of those alcoholics with a heart, estranged from his own daughter and possibly looking for redemption by taking on the challenge of mentoring and managing Violet (why must all ‘coaches’ in movies have a drinking problem?!).

Teen Spirit is a feel-good film with a thin plot that takes some predictable and formulaic turns involving Violet’s transformation, her strained relationship with her Polish-immigrant single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), her bond with Vlad, and external forces that threaten to undermine her personal and professional integrity. Indie darling Rebecca Hall (Christine, The Dinner) makes an all-too brief appearance as a tough judge and music producer who has big plans for Violet but may not have her best interests at heart.

The film marks the directorial debut of British actor Max Minghella (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale) who also penned the script. The first draft from 2009 was set in Poland, with the expectation that an unknown would take the lead. But the filmmakers had trouble finding the right fit. As the project evolved, Fanning pursued the role as an opportunity to showcase both her dramatic and musical talents. She carries the film well, helping to salvage what might otherwise be a dud for all but loyal viewers of reality competition shows.

Teen Spirit reminded me a bit of Natalie Portman’s pop anthem film Vox Lux, without all the weirdness and violence. Teen Spirit certainly goes down a lot easier, though it relies heavily on montages to skirt past the lack of narrative and stakes. Overall, a decent flick for the rental or streaming queue for teens and others in search of a modern-day Cinderella story with a stylized, pop music vibe.

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