Teen Spirit knows it’s a story that’s been told before. That’s not what makes it compelling. Though it has a star in Elle Fanning capable of projecting both deep hurt and building magnetism, that’s not what makes it compelling. Instead, it’s that writer/director Max Minghella has taken a familiar story and found new corners to focus on, so that even when Teen Spirit goes where you think it might, it sidesteps melodrama and becomes electrifying.
On the Isle of Wight, Violet (Fanning) lives with her single mother, goes to school, works, and dreams of being a singer. But the dream goes only so far as open mic night at a local club, where everyone’s polite, but not able to do much more than nod approval. Only the sozzled Vlad (Zlatko Buric) pays enough attention to recognize her talent.
When the newest UK television talent contest announced auditions on the island for the first time, Violet has to psyche herself up for it. She’s untried; she’s mostly sung for her horse. Hiding her initial audition from her mother, Violet needs a guardian because she’s only 17, and asks Vlad for help. Surprise: Vlad was once a famed opera singer, so when he has advice about singing, he’s probably right.
You can see where it’s going to go, but Minghella stages it so well. The first audition, we don’t even hear. A lesser movie would have focused on Violet’s sense of inferiority there; instead, it’s clear that Violet’s biggest competition is herself. At the second audition, in the spotlight, all the melodramatic bits wash together in montage. Up to then, the movie has focused on Violet’s place in the town, not on what drives her. It’s an exhilarating music video, and getting accepted to the next round is almost anticlimactic.
The story moves quickly and compactly, and Minghella keeps doing the same subverting of expectations. Hold on to your hats — he has respect for the audience and leaves it to us to connect the dots for the big scenes, instead focusing on the small moments, which leaves room for a truly tender friendship to build between Violet and Vlad. Every emotional beat feels earned, not forced.
For this kind of story, everyone feels surprisingly human. There are no villains here, just people living their lives and doing the best they can. Success is beside the point — but Fanning gives her all, an actor who even when glammed up can’t help but show the real person underneath. We root for Violet, but don’t need her to find fame.
And thus, Teen Spirit deserves to be very successful. It’s an assured directorial debut, and yes, a feel good movie. I’m far from a teen, but it lifted my spirit.
Teen Spirit will have a nationwide release in April.