Teen Spirit

(2019) ** 1/2 Pg-13
92 min. Bleecker Street. Director: Max Minghella. Cast: Elle Fanning, Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Buric.

/content/films/5156/1.jpgIs there an unwritten rule that actors-turned-directors must debut with pop-music dramedies? Tom Hanks first went behind the camera for 1996’s That Thing You Do!, and Bradley Cooper helmed last year’s A Star is Born. Now Max Minghella (The Social Network) helms Teen Spirit, another take on the rise-from-obscurity pop-star archetype. Since he’s not only an experienced actor but also the son of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, Max Minghella has a leg up on first-time filmmakers. Minghella was probably never one to take the “sunny with a chance of rain” tone of That Thing You Do! (nor would he have the budget to achieve a Hollywood look), but his indie aesthetic feels authentic to his muse. Teen Spirit serves mostly as a vehicle for star Elle Fanning, who provides her own vocals in the film’s multiple vocal-performance sequences and, more importantly, provides the film its soul of quietly defiant determination.

A farm girl from the Isle of Wight, Fanning’s Violet lives with her Polish-immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) and the horse that seems to be her only joy. Her need to sing—acceptably in a church choir and compulsively at an open-mic—reflects a girl desperate to throw off the yoke of her working-class fate and choose her own path. The open-mic nights introduce her to an aging, slovenly, pot-bellied drinker whose appearance belies his experience. This is Vlad (Zlatko Buric, drily effective), who offers her a ride home and, soon enough, his services as a manager when Violet needs a “guardian” to bless her participation in a reality-show singing competition called "Teen Spirit."

Minghella’s A Star is Born, Jr. script is, well, basic, from its temptations-of-fame beats to its subplot of a scrappy manager taking his last shot at redemption to the estranged-dad-sees-a-surrogate-daughter-in-her/estranged-daughter-sees-a-surrogate-dad-in-him heart-tugging of the film’s central relationship (turns out Vlad has his own singin’ daughter and a “once upon a time” past as an operatic tenor). There’s not a bit here that hasn’t been done before many times, but Fanning’s subtle performance, well observed by Minghella, puts meat on the bones that are the film’s clichés.

Obviously it doesn’t hurt Teen Spirit to have Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) in its side pocket, albeit in the undemanding role of the Simon Cowell-esque pop guru who dangles contracts to lure Violet from Vlad. A reliance on montages to sweep the story along (and showcase Violet’s pop songs) may be necessary, but it also makes the film seem more shallow in their seemingly unironic evocation of churned-out teen music videos (all the same, Cam McLauchlin’s fluid editing proves skillful).

Minghella teases with Violet’s romantic options even as she insists, “I don’t believe in love. Love’s not real.” Of course, the film’s true romance is the platonic one between Violet and Vlad. What’s more important than Violet’s voice? “Your soul, your spirit,” Vlad says. “Sing from your heart.” The filmmakers assure that Violet’s songs are a touch more soulful than the amusingly evoked vapidity of the teen pretty-girl and pretty-boy pop surrounding her (“Hands up if you’re down to get down tonight/‘Cause it’s always a good time”). Teen Spirit wrestles with its own vapidity, but the gambit of keeping the characters’ yearning just barely concealed lends the film just enough tension—and heart—to hold interest between flashy musical numbers.

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