James C. Clay // Film Critic
TEEN SPIRIT is like bad karaoke. It’s a muted version of the pop star template and it inflicts a visual style that’s a response to the likes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-drenched glam pop aesthetic.
Max Minghella, an actor you may know from THE SOCIAL NETWORK, directs a film has no commentary – nothing to say about the subject matter, only a camera that fawns over its star Elle Fanning for 90 minutes with a story beat that wouldn’t even come close to making the Billboard Hot 100. However, there are songs written by Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and Tegan, and Sara, so that’s a plus.
The film follows 17-year-old Violet (Elle Fanning), who comes from a family of Polish immigrants who have moved to the Isle of Wight in the U.K. Quiet and reserved, Violet spends her time listening to her iPod, singing on stage at shoddy town centers, and grooming her horse. We are made to believe she has the makings of a superstar – and despite Fanning’s own talent, the film never is able to create a character that feels fully realized.
Say what you will about last year’s A STAR IS BORN, but director Bradley Cooper knew those characters inside and out, and the audience felt every note. Here, it comes off as pantomime. Perhaps Minghella and Fanning made Violet a blank slate by design, yet the material presented is so bland I doubt anybody will be intrigued enough to care.
Without direction or the help from her mother, Violet befriends paunchy Croatian man named Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who is disheveled on the exterior, yet turns out to be a former Opera singer with a warm soul on the inside. They develop a nice little mentorship between each other that legit feels like it belongs in a different movie.
Existing in the periphery during the first act is a televised singing competition, titled “Teen Spirit.” It appears to be something Violet wants to participate in earnest as the show has never come to her side of the country. In 2019, society at large has been overrun with reality show competition shows. American Idol was damn-near 20 years ago, and there must be something to say about how the filmmaker feels about the world’s obsession with shows like this, but this is a film void of any social commentary. As we get into the throes of the audition process, the title of the film and the show, “Teen Spirit,” is blasted everywhere, from T-shirts, to billboards – you name it. The branding is there, yet this is a wasted opportunity to discuss pop stars being treated as a product, rather than actual artists. Maybe Minghella isn’t attempting to critique the musical landscape; the aim could just be looking for catharsis within a pop song.
TEEN SPIRIT feels painfully like a first-time filmmaker attempting to find their voice in a sea of noise. On one hand, the film is a landscape of mood and colors bathed in a dreamy haze that more or less feels deeply inspired by films like THE NEON DEMON and SPRING BREAKERS; and on the other, the film is an underdog story that we’ve seen time and time again. Both have their place in the cinematic landscape, they just don’t belong together, especially when this causes the directorial vision to be muddled. Cinematographer Autumn Durald (PALO ALTO) finds skill and precision in her images, but when acting in tandem with the script, they become misguided and lifeless.
Figuring out how to make a film feel timeless is a tricky rope to walk down, and unfortunately TEEN SPIRIT walks that wobbly path a bit too clumsily. Violet listens to an iPod, but smart phones are prevalent throughout. In another cringe-inducing film appearance of the song “Just A Girl” by No Doubt, TEEN SPIRIT also sees Violet singing muted versions of bangers like “Dancing on My Own” and “Lights” by Robyn and Ellie Goulding. We’re meant to get lost in the music, but it all just feels like forced filmmaking.
Bottom line, TEEN SPIRIT is a phony piece of filmmaking that wants a seat at the table. Rather than making a film that feels organic, its fight against its more empathic instincts and falls prey to its shortcomings. There’s a familiarity and fun to be had, only if the filmmakers could more focus and stopped worrying so much about how the film will look on Instagram.
TEEN SPIRIT opens nationwide on April 19.