I didn’t expect to love Teen Spirit as much as I did. A male-directed movie about a young blonde ingenue rising to pop stardom felt like a recipe for gratuitous objectification. And as the fourth in a succession of films focused around women in music released in the last year (A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, and Her Smell — all, I would mention, directed by men), it had a lot to prove.
But Max Minghella’s debut feature is entirely surprising, even if its plot is a tried and tested classic. Teen Spirit centers around Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), a 17-year-old dreaming of using her unique singing voice to escape her small town life. With the help of an unlikely mentor, she enters a teen singing competition, in the hopes of finally making it big.
But it’s the details that turn Teen Spirit from a standby into a refreshing, entirely modern take on the rise to fame story. The daughter of Polish immigrants, Violet lives with her devout Catholic mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on a farm on Britain’s Isle of Wight, an island off the coast of England with a population of roughly 141,000. Her musical guide is Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a former Croatian opera tenor turned grumpy local drunk. And her last name, as competition judge Jules (Rebecca Hall) so passive aggressively points out, is neither English, nor easy to pronounce. The odds are indeed stacked against Violet’s success — just not in the usual ways.
Fanning gives a compelling, poignant performance as a teen consumed by her passion, but also the ambition for a better future. She radiates intensity as she goes up against Grochowska, who as Violet’s mother, is trying to spare her the indignity of the failures and disappointments that she’s had to endure. As for Vlad, we haven’t seen a curmudgeonly older man/young waif dynamic this good since the Hound and Arya parted ways on Game of Thrones.
This year’s array of musical films have not been kind to pop music. Ali’s (Lady Gaga) performance of “Why Did You Do That” made Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) pale under his orange self-tan in a A Star Is Born. Vox Lux essentially compared it to terrorism. In Her Smell, Amber Heard’s Zelda, whose grunge roots gave way to a more mainstream appeal, is derided by Elisabeth Moss’ Becky Something for selling out. (Fun fact, Minghella plays Moss’ love interest Nick in The Handmaid’s Tale.)
Teen Spirit is the only film about pop that actually seems to genuinely enjoy it. A scene of Violet dancing to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” in her bedroom should feel cliche, but Fanning injects so much enthusiasm into it that it’s hard to wipe the smile off your face. After all, that’s the appeal of a film like this — why fight it? (Minghella appears to be in on the joke, which makes it all the more enjoyable. Drunk group dancing to Darude’s “Sandstorm” at a club? I see you, Max.) Violet’s stage appearances are more interesting, largely due to Minghella’s visual choices, which give each performance its own flavor, often synched to the vibrant soundtrack. Violet’s audition rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” is intercut with shots of her singing that same song at various points in her everyday life, moments that she’s tapping into now for added oomph.
In fact, the whole film has a music video aesthetic. Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who has worked with Solange Knowles, Janelle Monáe, and Arcade Fire, frames scenes with a soft, mellow lens, creating a colorful, dreamy vibe that’s in stark contrast to the bleak landscape of the Isle. And Minghella, who also wrote the script, knows the terrain. His father, the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, grew up there.
It helps that Fanning’s got the kind of star quality that can’t be faked, and a voice to go with it. At 21, she can still convincingly portray a teen, and Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s array of sporty, athleisure-inspired costumes (that monochrome yellow sweater/skirt look yes!!) only add to her youthful appearance. Subverting expectations of the young popstar corrupted by the industry, Violet keeps her style throughout the competition, never once subbing in her trademark sneakers for sky-high stilettos.
And of course, with covers of Ellie Golding, Annie Lennox, Tegan & Sara, and Sigrid — among many others — and an original song written by Carly Rae Jepsen and produced by Jack Antonoff, the soundtrack slaps. Sorry, Jackson.