Written and directed by: Max Minghella
Starring: Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska and Rebecca Hall
Classification: PG; 92 minutes
Let’s begin with a positive: Teen Spirit has a great pop soundtrack, featuring music by artists such as Robyn, Tegan & Sara and Carly Rae Jepsen. This is, though, the only good thing that can be said of the directorial debut from actor Max Minghella. With so many missteps, you must question why Teen Spirit was even released.
The film stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a Polish-born 17-year-old living on the Isle of Wight. She has a talent and passion for music, which is squandered in her rural community. When a singing competition, called Teen Spirit, opens auditions in her town, Violet is finally given the opportunity to shine.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the inexperienced Violet is a huge success at her first audition: a breath of fresh air for her naturalistic persona amidst the illusions of the music industry. In her innocence, Violet is pitted against other girls who are popular and chic, yet catty, and lacquered in makeup, supporting their performances with stage costumes and flashy dance moves. Violet, by contrast, is presented as a raw talent. Bare-faced and clad in her everyday clothes, she is so gifted that she doesn’t need to posture like the women around her, and she’s so pure that she wouldn’t even know how.
So naturally, the naive Violet is instantly seduced by the world of pop. Flying to London for the televised portion of the competition, she finds herself caught up in Minghella’s vision of a soulless entertainment landscape. The promise of a record contract by a slick executive (Rebecca Hall) entices her away from the wholesome, if idiosyncratic, management of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), the kindly ex-opera singer from her hometown who took Violet under his wing. An industry party then tempts Violet with excess. Donning a skimpy dress and thick makeup (which is criticized by Vlad, so that the negative judgement is as heavy-handed as possible), Violet gets drunk and engages in sweaty make-out sessions with a sleazy pop star.
Although briefly dabbling in the dark side of the music business, Violet, unsurprisingly, returns to be herself: the singer who is in her essence better than the rest of the industry she attempts to break into, though this judgment rests less upon Fanning’s singing skills (which are average) and more on Violet’s traits and morals. Violet is everything that Teen Spirit deems as valuable in a young woman. She is talented, but level-headed and principled. She knows the value of hard work and is never entitled like her wealthier classmates and competitors. She needs no magic to construct a false image, so you can trust her. A blossoming flower amidst a field of artificial pop constructions, Minghella’s unspoken message is that of the sexist refrain: “She’s not like other girls.”
It would be remiss to suggest that the film’s problems lie solely in its sexism. Teen Spirit is poorly constructed on the whole. Little more than a series of music videos tied together with montage sequences, the film is disjointed in a manner which is unnecessarily hyperactive. Song sequences are visually uninteresting, relying on rhythm alone to give images a reason to be matched to song, while every non-musical moment is edited to hell and back, as though Minghella (son of the late English Patient director Anthony Minghella) was losing interest in his own plot. So cut up that almost no action is done to completion before cutting away to something else, Teen Spirit is a dizzying exercise in the Bohemian Rhapsody school of nonsensical editing. Perhaps it is fitting that Teen Spirit is badly made. It would be more disappointing if a work of such lazy sexism were a formal triumph.
Teen Spirit opens April 19