As a person who has studied media for the better part of her adult life, and as a citizen of the world, one of the most riveting lessons I’ve gleaned is that the pursuit for fame and human need for recognition is one that will never subside. Exhibit A is YouTube; Exhibit B is social media. And Exhibit C is the reality-competition television show. In the latter category, hordes of individuals put their talents up for review by the general public, and only a lucky few go on to fame and glory; the rest are, unfortunately, doomed to a future of relative anonymity.
It’s not too clear what writer/director Max Minghella wants to say about this in his film Teen Spirit, but his attempt at exposing the singing-competition circuit is a noble one. Though Minghella pumps a frenetic, pop-heavy soundtrack into the film, the main character, Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), sorely lacks any energy. Stoicly marching from one dreary interior to the next, Violet secretly dreams of singing professionally (as any teenaged girl would) and escaping the small, working-class Isle of Wight. She’s extremely talented, but there’s no there there to Violet except a good set of pipes.
She finds an unexpected mentor in Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a patron of the bar Violet occasionally sneaks away to sing in and who soon becomes Violet’s manager. Vlad is a washed-up famous opera singer whose career demise is never fully explored, although we’re to presume his current state as a barfly has something to do with it. Thus, we’re thrust into the world of show biz through the young eyes of a girl who is the living embodiment of the phrase “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”
With Grimes’ “Oblivion” acting as overture, Teen Spirit follows Violet as she balances school with her job as a waitress; she’s working to help out her single, Polish-immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), with whom she resides on a farm off the coast of England. One day, Violet sees an ad for local auditions for an X-Factor-type singing competition called Teen Spirit. Since her mother frowns upon her singing outside of the church choir, Violet fakes an illness to get out of work and attend the auditions.
After singing Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” (Fanning provided her own vocal tracks for the film, and wow), Violet makes it to the next round, but as a teen, she needs an adult to sign off on her moving forward. She enlists Vlad to pose as her uncle, and he takes her on as a protégé, coaching Violet on vocal technique and range.
The higher Violet ascends in the competition, the more we’re privy to the darker side of show biz, specifically its construction and marketing of teen idols. Embodying this is Keyan Spears (Ruairi O’Connor), the previous year’s Teen Spirit winner who blew up as an angelic heartthrob but behind closed doors is a jaded fuckboy with designs on Violet and her rival, Roxy (Clara Rugaard). Also weighing in on the dark side is Rebecca Hall’s perfectly coiffed Teen Spirit producer, Jules, who offers Violet a recording contract outside the competition—if she fires Vlad (more sinister Hall, please).
Without a doubt, what gives Teen Spirit its, well, spirit, are the scenes of Violet and Vlad’s blossoming friendship, collaboration and conflict. Vlad is both comic relief and philosophical compass, so it’s highly frustrating how little of his backstory is known or cared about. And since Violet seems too disaffected and incomplete a character without Vlad, their scenes together catapult us into drama and light-hearted humor. The meta scenes of the competition are strangely ominous, with shots of each contestant onstage performing bubblegum tunes in dark lighting (one boy band is singing a poppy cover of the Undertones classic “Teenage Kicks,” which I loathed). Yet by film’s end, Violet’s triumphant fate is met with the same blank stare as her daily bus commute.
I wish I could at least enjoy the musical soundtrack, but even by my standards, it’s way too dated—unless Isle of Wight teens are 10 to 20 years behind on musical trends. Tracks include Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl”—which is a little too on the nose. Teen Spirit might just be one of those movies that aims for glittery style and has nothing new to say about the themes it’s excavating, ensuring its likely descent into irrelevance and obscurity.
Teen Spirit was written and directed by Max Minghella; and stars Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska and Zlatko Buric.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.