What is the power of pop? It’s a question indie filmmakers have pondered of late, in Brady Corbet’s portentous “Vox Lux,” and now, Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit,” starring Elle Fanning. But where Corbet’s take on pop was frustratingly ambivalent, it’s obvious Minghella deeply loves and respects the emotional clout of a good pop song, and the role it plays in life: as a symbol, an anthem, a glimmer of hope. He also has impeccable taste in pop.
Music is a lifeline for Violet Valenski (Fanning), a Polish-born British teen living on the Isle of Wight. At 17, her life is dreary: school, waitressing at a billiards hall, tending to the family farm. Alone with her iPod, she snatches scraps of freedom and joy, dancing alone in her room or lingering in a field of lavender. One night, singing for a room full of drunks at a pub, she catches the ear of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up Croatian opera singer.
The unlikely friendship comes in handy when Violet secretly auditions for a singing competition show called “Teen Spirit.” When she advances to the next round, she brings Vlad as a guardian in lieu of her stern mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). Soon Vlad is her manager/mentor.
Belting Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” (Fanning does all her own singing) during her audition, Minghella, along with editor Cam McLaughlin, employs a series of flashbacks to illustrate that “Dancing on My Own” isn’t just a song for Violet — it’s her whole life. After the moving, dizzying montage, there’s a rude irony to the way the judges flatly offer muted feedback to Violet.
“Teen Spirit” is mythic in its themes but exquisitely economic in its storytelling. We know intimately who Violet is even before the title card pops up. This is a tale we know, the classic rise and fall and rise of a musician; it’s “A Star Is Born” rendered over the course of a few weeks. It doesn’t try to be epic, to explain or comment — it’s just a snapshot of a glimpse of stardom for a kid who finds her salvation in music.
“Teen Spirit” is a myth about the dream of stardom, of being plucked from obscurity and discovered for pure talent, held up as a symbol of national pride. Minghella doesn’t break the mold when it comes to the story, but if his film argues anything, it’s that the dream should be available to anyone.
Starring Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric and Agnieszka Grochowske. Directed by Max Minghella.
Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 32 minutes.
Bottom line: The story doesn’t break the mold, but has a great moral
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