Music is such a universal force in modern culture and it’s easy for us to get its appeal. That’s especially true for pop music and those who make it. Through their songs, they can encapsulate loneliness and alienation better than movies can. Pop music is such an underrated art form, one that only teenagers understand and want to emulate. And Max Minghella’s directorial debut film Teen Spirit tells the story of one of those teenagers. Ones who audition to those reality TV contests to become just like one of the musicians she idolizes. That teenager is Violet (Elle Fanning), a Polish-British teenager who lives in a struggling farm house in the Isle of Wight. She also finds Vlad (Zlatko Buric), someone who, at first, takes her from and to auditions.
Violet sings the pop hit Dancing On My Own in one of her first auditions. Minghella uses a montage to show her the life she lived. He shows her during choir practice, or tending to her favorite horse. It also flashbacks to a traumatic moment in her childhood that tries to reinterpret the famous Robyn song. Before she finishes the song, the judges interrupt her. Despite choosing a song that doesn’t show off her vocal range, they’ll let her through anyway. This becomes one of her struggles. She must make the pop songs she loves into her own and to connect with a mostly receptive audience more than the other contestants do. She occasionally thinks about these things with Vlad, who takes it upon himself to be her manager.
Teen Spirit is the latest of the wave of movies under the ‘rising musician’ sub genre, the most famous and successful of which is A Star is Born. While the latter movie is passable, its detractors have criticized its derisive view of pop music. The former film has someone who loves pop music as its protagonist, but that love doesn’t come across here. It also doesn’t think much of Violet as a consummate musician. There’s a scene where she looks up Vlad’s past instead of looking for better songs to sing in the contest. That doesn’t matter much anyway because she’s good enough to reach the finals of the local offshoot of the show. Which is strange since most of these shows start at the national level anyway.
As a critic, it’s probably not a good idea to criticize a writer and director’s knowledge of the subject they’re putting on film. Minghella is British. This should give him a head start on British talent contests as opposed to people who only know about this through YouTube. But those shows are international anyway and seem to have the same rules in North America as they do in Britain. Either way, Minghella doesn’t seem to know anything about how those shows work even from the audition levels. The film makes it seem like she’ll only get to London if she wins a offshoot show in the Isle of Wight. Teen Spirit’s real life basis are shows like X-Factor, which only lets contestants audition in six major cities. The closest city to her is London.
Fanning’s casting is also the biggest wild card Teen Spirit. She does all the singing herself, which is commendable. There’s even a tension to the film. Can Violet win over people as talented or more talented than her? It doesn’t help that Violet starts out as a performer with a timid stage presence, making audiences wonder whether she can improve in time. Or if real life situations would have allowed her to improve. Film criticism is obliviously as subjective as music criticism, and the subject of whether or not she’s the best singer out of the other contestants will come up. I can’t say that she’s the worst singer of the finalists, since other critics don’t think so neither. But the gravelly aspects of her voice fit better with indie music.
This foundation is shaky enough as it is, although this sub genre has its possibilities. Violet has to win the competition, because why else would a film spend 90 minutes with her. Or she can lose but she can find a way to make her dreams come true outside of the contest model, which hasn’t brought a lot of successful stars. Minghella can play within two of those possibilities to tell an entertaining, unique story. But instead he comes up with one contrivance after another to make a more convenient plot. The supporting characters are also cliches. Rebecca Hall plays one of many music industry figures that act like ones we’ve seen in other movies. It’s brave to write about something he knows nothing about but that lack of knowledge shows.