Max Minghella’s directorial debut is a neon-dredged pop curio that features a one-note script that doesn’t exactly serve Elle Fanning’s game lead turn.
“I don’t know what you’re saying, but I like it,” 17-year-old Violet (Elle Fanning) says tepidly. Sitting on the other end of the room is grizzled ex-opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), and as one of his old records fills the air, his fingers trace the rim of his glass. He lets out a grumble. She looks on with a wide-eyed deadpan. Maybe it’s their contiguous European heritage that binds them; maybe it’s sheer luck.
Moments like this often feel empty in Teen Spirit, but is that really the point? Max Minghella’s directorial debut doesn’t make much of an effort to differentiate its young heroine from the pack, and with her waitressing job and overbearing mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), she really is just another member of the choir. This seems intentional for a bit—maybe this Cinderella story wants to wade in white noise. It has the archetypal plot, the everywoman lead, and the poppy music, but at just 92 minutes, Teen Spirit is really just a half-dreamed idea.
The film quickly establishes Violet’s life, fervently cutting between her isolated domestic farm life and her pallid school days. One day, she sees a billboard for a talent search show called Teen Spirit, and what do you know? It’s the only thing her peers ever talk about. Maybe this is her ticket to performing in places other than the local pub.
But her mom would never let her do something like that. As such, she enlists the heavy-drinking Vlad to pass as her uncle (or “manager,” as he insists). One thing leads to another and suddenly Violet isn’t on an island off the coast of England. She’s actually in London—that is, a version of London that’s entirely comprised of suave interiors and distant skylines. Very little of Minghella’s film feels extraordinary, and while that works decently for a while, this pastel picture movie never has enough under its surface to really click.
Teen Spirit doesn’t really know what it’s saying, but it likes it anyways. That just isn’t enough.
Sometimes it gets pretty close. Some parts of Teen Spirit have a vested interest in the oversaturated culture on which its hero lives adjacent to and Cam McLauchlin’s (The Void) abrasive editing feels straight out of an early 2010s pop video. Locations mix but never match, leaving Violet to stew in the lights even more platinum than her hair. The cinematography from Autumn Durald (Palo Alto) is similarly surreal. These choices, though, feel so planned and lacking in greater context that they fail to truly satisfy.
The film tries to bridge the gap between Violet’s humdrum life and the neon paradise on the other side of the water, but Minghella’s script is too one-note to evoke much tension. She looks bored, tries to fulfill her dreams, gets told no, feels disheartened, and the cycle repeats. Even the film’s divergences from repetition fall victim to a contrived narrative that stops the experience from feeling truly new.
That said, there are a few areas where the movie works well enough. Durald’s work is best when it actually embraces its flat composition and Minghella’s direction plays with the first act’s arbitrariness. Fanning is typically charismatic in an underwritten role, but truth be told, it’s hard not to think of her similar part in the far superior The Neon Demon. Rebecca Hall even shows up for a few scenes as a bland producer type. It’s nice to have her around, but she’s criminally underused here.
There are just too many tropes here that don’t level out. Violet’s nondescript friends are bland, her brushes against danger feel uncharacteristic, and there’s an oddly regressive bent to how Minghella refuses to let her have her own life. He just never goes far enough, preventing his few engaging ideas from flourishing before the all-too-sudden denouement. Teen Spirit doesn’t really know what it’s saying, but it likes it anyways. That just isn’t enough.