In his directorial debut, Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit tells the all too familiar tale of the underdog trying to make it big. While I won’t give the film any points for narrative originality, its style and cinematography not only resonate strongly with the indie aesthetic, but are also bold and unapologetic in nature. Combined with great performances from Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, and Agnieszka Grochowska, Teen Spirit is an honest homage to the dreams we hold on to growing up.
On the Isle of Wight, Violet Valinsky (Fanning) is a lonely Polish teen with a humble talent for singing. Her mother (Grochowska) pushes her towards work to support her family and resents the time she dedicates to her passion. When the American Idol-esque Teen Spirit singing competition comes to her small town, Violet is given the chance to break free from her lowly living and become a star. In her accent to stardom, her experience begins to show, and Violet starts to realize that fame and fortune may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
One my favorite things about Teen Spirit is its look. The use of flashy, saturated colors of Violet’s pop performances stand in stark contrast to the grays and blues of her home, especially as she progresses through the competition. Much of the film’s style and cinematography is unique, often replicating the look and feel of a music video, and something that is atypical of big budget Hollywood films.
Another note about Teen Spirit is that it wasn’t overt in its efforts to impress. The message of “what truly matters is being yourself” isn’t repeatedly bashed into your head, but rather, born naturally through Violet’s arc and our own reaction to the narrative. I praise Minghella’s subtlety on that front, especially when considering many movies attempt a similar narrative, but end up butchering it.
Another highlight is Fanning’s performance as Violet. Subdued and nuanced, her character is quietly stated that you want to believe in and see succeed. Her dynamics with Vlad (her stand in guardian and singing coach played by Buric) and her mother are authentic, even if they are pretty predictable. Predictability aside, I still found myself rooting for Violet as she learns what is really important to her in the face of the strenuous circumstances of the competition. This careful balance between character development and plot proved effective in keeping me engaged as a viewer even when I knew what was going to happen. On top of that, Violet’s covers aren’t half bad either, so bonus points there.
Overall, Teen Spirit is a refreshing execution on a story already told before. It’s not always a bad thing to be reminded of fundamental life lessons, and Teen Spirit certainly accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s a promising debut from Minghella, a definite recommend, and even if you’re not compelled by the predictable narrative, you’ll certainly enjoy the music.