It’s almost impossible not to love a film that begins with its titular character listening to “Genesis” by Grimes.
Music is an important part of every teenager’s life, whether it be to drown out their surroundings or to act as an escape to a different world. Writer/director Max Minghella (whose acting credits include The Handmaid’s Tale and The Social Network) displays this with Teen Spirit: a coming of age film about a young girl who dreams of becoming a famous singer. The film’s main character – Violet (Elle Fanning) – is a lonely highschooler who works as a waitress and uses music as an escape from her dismal surroundings and her strained relationship with her mother. What her mother doesn’t know is that after work, Violet frequently sneaks out to sing at a local pub. There – among a crowd of dismal elders – Violet meets Vladimir Brajkovic (Zlatko Burić) who believes her to have a real chance at becoming a singer. When an American Idol-esque singing competition rolls into town, Violet enlists Vlad to pretend to be her guardian while acting as her “manager.”
The songs Violet sings in Teen Spirit, have a direct connection to her life, and are songs that quite perfectly highlight the teenage experience. When she auditions for the first round of the music competition, Violet pours her heart out with a cover of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” that is accompanied by a montage explaining her connection to the song – singing it at home alone and also singing it to the empty crowd at the local pub. The final song that Violet sings as she makes it to the final round of the competition is Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which is where we finally see her let go. These poignant pop songs, accompanied by Elle Fanning’s raw vocals and Minghella’s strong sense of visuals, propel the film into music video territory – which makes the film feel all the more real.
Within the first half, there is no doubt that Teen Spirit is Violet’s story, yet the third act of the film moves away from being a quiet character study and takes off in a direction that feels muddled. The film strays away from exploring Violet’s current state of mind within the fast-paced singing competition, and begins to reinvent itself into a commentary on the music industry. This causes the film to ultimately lag in the middle of its run time, as Violet and Vlad begin to realize they do not want the same thing for the young singer’s career. The version of Violet that the audience meets at the beginning of the film doesn’t feel like someone who wants their name up in lights immediately – yet this is the Violet who consumes the rest of the film. Violet now wants immediate stardom and begins to become seduced by music executives that are eager to begin a contract with her even though the competition is not over. This causes a rift between her and Vlad, who wants Violet to prolong her journey and find her way on her own. These cliches are so common in films about music stardom (whether as biopics or fictional stories instead) that audiences may feel as if they have worn out their welcome.
Teen Spirit is a solid directorial debut from Max Minghella, that is accompanied by a stellar performance from Elle Fanning, and music covers that will stick in your head for days. The presence of songs such as Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” and again, Grimes indie-hit “Genesis,” provide an air of nostalgia for Gen Zer’s that make the film’s third act not seem as shaky or weak. It is a film that isn’t without its faults, nevertheless, Teen Spiritfeels personal, and will touch the heart of anyone who has ever imagined themselves on a stage, pouring their soul out through the method of song.