Film

TIFF 2018: Teen Spirit

Elle Fanning as Violet in Teen Spirit (source: IMDB)

Max Minghella's first feature film, Teen Spirit, has two really good music videos -- and some confused ideas about mentorship.

Written and directed by Max Minghella (whom fans will recognize as Nick from The Handmaid's Tale), Teen Spirit is one of several pop star movies that premiered at TIFF this year. The thing that sets Teen Spirit apart is that Elle Fanning, who plays the lead role, turns out to be a really good singer — so good that I already want the soundtrack to show up on iTunes.

Fanning plays Violet, a 17-year-old girl from the Isle of Wight, who makes money to help support her struggling family by singing cover songs in bars. Against her mother's wishes, she secretly auditions for Teen Spirit, an X-Factor-like singing competition where the winner gets a record contract at the end. The film chronicles Violet's journey to prepare for and compete on Teen Spirit, and it hits all the beats you'd expect it to along the way.

Like many reality stars before her, Violet knows that winning this competition could change her life by guaranteeing a kind of financial security she couldn't hope for otherwise — and, while that mix of hope and desperation is compelling, the movie doesn't dig into the class issues inherent in reality TV. It's very much an uplifting Follow Your Dreams movie that tells us "Don't give up, even when it seems like you've already lost," and "Don't be a sell-out," and "If you try your very best, doors will always open up for you."

Elle Fanning is a fine actor who's more than capable of carrying the movie and, although we've heard her sing before in John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017), it's staggering to see how much personality she brings to the pop performances here. Her performance is about more than just sounding good — it's being in the moment as a performer and managing how the character's feelings come through, even when Violet's deliberately trying to present herself a certain way to please the judges. The two strongest sequences in Teen Spirit are the performance Violet gives at her audition and the performance she gives in the finals, which marks the film's climax. They both land exactly the way they're supposed to, and they're worth the price of admission.


In the audition sequence, Violet sings Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" over a montage that beautifully captures the pressure of the competition, the desperation of knowing that this is her only shot at escaping the pain of her home life, and the joy and freedom of finally having the chance to do the thing that she loves best. Minghella proves himself to be an excellent music video director, and the result feels like a gut punch, in part because it takes itself seriously. There's no suggestion that there's anything low-brow or juvenile about what's happening — that pop music isn't serious enough, or that being on a reality show is embarrassing. This is a big opportunity for Violet, and we know it.

The film's final performance is just as serious but filled with ten times the adrenaline. Fanning throws herself around the stage and screams a version of Sigrid's "Don't Kill My Vibe" that leaves her (and maybe us) hoarse and panting by the end. Her expression as she breathes into the microphone, not knowing how anyone's about to react, could have been the final shot of the movie, and it's the shot that haunts me whenever I think about Teen Spirit.

The one choice that feels "off" is Minghella's decision to anchor the story in Violet's relationship with her "manager" and surrogate father figure, Vlad (Zlatko Buric). There's nothing wrong with Buric's performance, but the character feels outdated — a funny drunk with a heart of gold that you could see as a John Candy character from the '80s. It's clear that Minghella knows it's creepy for some strange man to approach a teenage girl outside a bar, claim to be a famous opera singer, and then take her to a padlocked storage shed so he can help her with her music career — which is literally what happens in the film.

Both Violet and her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) are initially suspicious that Vlad may be a sexual predator, but it seems that the only purpose of acknowledging their suspicions is to then brush them off so that we can get on with the beautiful and unexpected friendship Teen Spirit wants this to be. At one point, Violet even tells her mother (and us) that there's no chance Vlad's going to assault her, because they've already known each other for a while and, if he were going to do it, "he would have done it already." But that's not how all predators work.

The stakes in the film also get confused as it rolls into its final act. The characters behave as though second and third-place contestants on reality shows are never offered record contracts. This is obviously done to set up a false dilemma where Violet either has to bet her future on winning the contest or sell out and take a deal from one of the producers. Around the same time, Teen Spirit also starts to frame Violet's decisions as though she has a moral obligation to do what's best for Vlad — who is supposed to be her manager if not her mentor — rather than the other way around.

Taken all together, the music video portions of the film — outstanding on their own — are dragged down by the story to create something that's fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon, but ultimately, Teen Spirit is not all that insightful.

5
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.