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Although British-made Teen Spirit features lashings of EDM-influenced, heavily produced pop music, the kind that sells downloads by the zillion on digital retail platforms, this making-of-a-star drama is old-fashioned and corny, and not in a good way. A writing-directing debut for actor Max Minghella (The Handmaid’s Tale), Spirit is supposedly set partly on Minghella’s home turf, the Isle of Wight (the south coast English island where Minghella’s father, the late director Anthony Minghella, also grew up). And yet the film is curiously lacking in a strong sense of place.
That’s of a piece with the occluded personality of the protagonist, played by industrious but frequently recessive Elle Fanning. She speaks several lines in Polish here (reasonably convincingly) and shows off a good singing voice while playing a shy country girl who auditions for a nationwide, X Factor-type TV talent show. The actress, who is reported to have done all her own singing live and not had it Auto-Tuned in post, has a good set of pipes, but it’s hard to see her competent but derivative musical stylings breaking out in a crowded marketplace.
Indeed, too much here fails to convince, from many nagging little details in Minghella’s self-penned script to more technical aspects of the production. Fanning’s character, Violet, is supposed to be a 17-year-old high school student who also works in a pub part-time to help her struggling single mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) out with the household expenses, Violet’s father having disappeared years ago. When she can, Violet sings both in the church choir and on stage at a seedy club with a live accompanist to an audience of indifferent drunks, the sort of setup that hasn’t been seen in a British venue since the invention of the karaoke machine.
One night, Violet’s performance wins praise from Vlad (Croatian actor Zlatko Buric, best known for playing Milo in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher films), a washed up, booze-soaked man of undefined Eastern European origin who just so happened to have been a great opera singer back in the day.
Violet wants to audition for Teen Spirit, a musical talent show, but knowing her mother wouldn’t like it, she ropes in Vlad to pretend to be her guardian and sign the permission form. He ends up becoming her “manager,” and coaches her on technique.
Montage after montage soon ensues as Violet climbs up the rankings and makes it to the final. Along the way, she picks up a backing band of other teens from the island, a racially mixed crew that establishes her street cred but seems demographically unlikely to anyone who has ever spent much time on the Isle of Wight.
There are just too many plausibility holes like that and sloppy fudges along the way. For instance, Buric has a deep, from-the-caverns-of-hell sort of speaking voice, and yet when we get to hear an LP of what’s supposedly him singing an aria from Madama Butterfly, it’s actually tenor Ashley Faatoalia, whose voice is way, way higher. A gap that big between speaking and singing voice isn’t impossible, but it would be an outlier. And then there’s problems like the bizarre lighting choices DP Autumn Durald Arkapaw makes when showing the performances for Teen Spirit. It may match the hazy, pop-video vibe of the earlier part of the film, but there’s no way a show like this would have everyone’s faces in shadow that often, backlit to create pretty hair halos but making their features almost completely unidentifiable. Perhaps it’s all part of a strategy to disguise the lack of budget for background players.
There are a few redeeming features, nevertheless. Rebecca Hall, always a treat, is a gas as an evil female version of Simon Cowell, with sinisterly coiffed hair and a Mephistophelian glint in her eye. And the music, as a standalone soundtrack, is well composed and curated by Marius de Vries and music supervisor Steven Gizicki, comprised of exactly the sort of glassy power pop you would expect from a show like this.
Production companies: A Mister Smith Entertainment presentation, in association with Aperture Media Partners of an Automatik production, in association with Blank Tape, Interscope Films
Cast: Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Agnieszka Grochowska, Clara Rugaard, Archie Madekwe, Ursula Holliday, Jordan Stephens, Millie Brady, Ruairi O’Connor, Rebecca Hall
Director-screenwriter: Max Minghella
Producer: Fred Berger
Executive producers: Jamie Bell, Max Minghella, David Garrett, Dan Fisher, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Andrew C. Robinson, Jared D. Underwood, John Janick, Steve Berman, Anthony Seyler
Co-producer: Michael Constable
Director of photography: Autumn Durald Arkapaw
Production designer: Kave Quinn
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editor: Cam McLauchlin
Music: Marius de Vries
Music supervisor: Steven Gizicki
Choreography: Jonathan Lunn, Amir Hosseinpour
Casting: Julie Harkin
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment
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