Why do movies hate the music industry? They love music, and they love musicians more or less, but to hear the likes of A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, and now Teen Spirit tell it, the executives are minions of Satan. Look, I’m sure the business has more than its share of godless, soul-sucking, money-grubbing corporate leeches who will stab you in the back at the first chance they get, but they can’t all be like that, can they? These movies don’t even have the wit to make the suits’ venality funny, like Christopher Guest’s comedies do. Christian movies depict liberals in more nuanced terms than Hollywood depicts the music industry. That’s not a comparison you want to lose. Whether it’s a manifestation of a corporate art form’s self-loathing or simply lazy writing, this drags down Teen Spirit, which deserves better.
Elle Fanning portrays Violet Valenski, a teenage girl in a strictly Catholic, Polish-speaking family farm on the Isle of Wight who dreams of pop music stardom and sees her chance when Teen Spirit — a U.K. TV program that isn’t Pop Idol, but totally is Pop Idol — holds auditions on the island. In a happy coincidence, the old homeless Croatian named Vlad (Zlatko Burić) who hears her sing at the local pub just happens to be a former opera star who ruined himself with alcohol but still knows a ton about breathing exercises and articulation. With him posing as her legal guardian, Violet sets her sights on moving past the initial rounds and performing for a national audience.
This is the first filmmaking effort by Max Minghella, the actor from The Social Network and TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale. You may recall that his father, the late Anthony Minghella, was quite a talented filmmaker himself. The younger Minghella is to blame for turning this story into some soggy pop-music morality fable in which Violet has to learn the value of loyalty despite the temptation of a record contract dangled by some fembot executive who wants to cut Vlad out (Rebecca Hall has this thankless role). The movie’s off-putting, finger-wagging tone is never more evident than in the scenes of Violet partying in London while Vlad tries to find her.
Still, when you’re looking at a debut film, you’re looking for signs of talent more than a good movie, and Minghella has two things going for him. First of all, he has the eye. If you take this film as a series of music videos rather than as a story, it works rather well. Violet’s opening rendition of Tegan and Sara’s “I Was a Fool” is filmed in an appropriately stripped-down style as Violet sings for a sparse crowd of drunks at the pub, while her cover of Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” has a striking shot of her diving into a wealthy neighbor’s swimming pool. The one-take shot of “Good Time,” performed by Violet and all the other finalists on Teen Spirit, is done with an unobtrusive grace as well.
The other thing he has is the star. Perhaps this musical turn wouldn’t be as impactful if it came from an actress with a deeper pop background (say, Hailee Steinfeld), but Fanning’s portrayal is worth sitting through all the canned dramatics for. Her singing of some smartly chosen pop covers is quite fine and she does even better at capturing the tentative stage presence we see at the start of the film and then the singer who storms the stage in a climactic performance of Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” What makes that last bit so touching is the part afterwards, when her bandmates rush up to her to congratulate her on her performance while she wears an expression on her face that says, “Where’d that come from?” You expect an actor who just turned 21 to lack a bit of career direction, and Fanning has been all over the place in her 17 years on screen, from the guilt-ridden daughter in Super 8 to the transgender boy in 3 Generations to the tragic heroine of The Neon Demon. The closest she has come to giving a great performance in a movie worthy of it was in the 2012 coming-of-age film Ginger & Rosa. If this movie isn’t her own play for pop-music stardom, it’s good enough to fool us. One day, the stars will align and this talented young star will absolutely crush it. We should all look out for that day.
Starring Elle Fanning and Zlatko Burić. Written and directed by Max Minghella. Rated PG-13.