Consider pop stars for a moment. Decide for yourself whether or not to question their role in contributing to the cultural conversation, or if they contribute at all, but it can’t be denied that it takes more than just a pretty face to make a star.
“Teen Spirit” has all the makings of a sensation, but falls short of the depth needed to make a star and ends up as just another pretty face.
“Teen Spirit” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018 and at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2019. The film is the directorial debut of writer and director Max Minghella (“The Handmaid’s Tale”).
In “Teen Spirit,” Violet (Elle Fanning) dreams of escaping her small town existence and pursuing her passion to sing. She finds an unlikely mentor in Vlad, a washed-up opera singer played by Zlatko Buric, and enters a singing competition that holds the potential to make her dreams come true. Can she avoid being blinded by the lights of show business and her own ambition?
I’ll say this for “Teen Spirit,” it has good intentions and, by that, I mean that the intentionality of the film makes for some of its best moments.
This is a drop-dead gorgeous film. Every shot is a perfect photograph with incredible use of light and texture and color. Even the smallest, most mundane moments of the film are set up so beautifully that it gives the whole film an elevated feeling of importance.
The like is true for the use of music in “Teen Spirit.” The film’s pop soundtrack is incredibly on the nose, with a truly clever playlist putting the perfect emphasis on the action. Some may say it’s too on the nose, verging on jukebox musical levels. I say, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”
In particular, it did not escape my notice that the way the music is mixed changes gradually as the film progresses. The earliest scenes of the film are very music heavy, as in the instrumentation and the played tracks are blaringly loud, sometimes even going so far as to drown out Violet’s voice.
As the film’s story unfolds, Violet’s singing begins to take center stage and shines above the tracks she’s performing. It’s almost a perfect grade of her confidence growing and her voice, her performance, becoming the focal point. It’s a damn good trick.
“Teen Spirit” is made up of a lot of pretty parts. Some are absolutely perfect and masterful. But the sum leaves something to be desired.
The greatest sin of “Teen Spirit” is that it piles on the clichés mercilessly.
Small town girl, dreaming of being a star. Okay. It’s a cliché, in and of itself, but a classic tale too.
Small town girl, dreaming of being a star, with her very own vocal Mr. Miyagi (who also has a tragic past), who is temporarily blinded by what’s important because of the seduction of fame, and, by the way, she has a horse that she loves that gets randomly taken away from her to illustrate how high the stakes really are… yeah, that’s one too many tired tropes for one film.
It’s a formula that we’ve seen over and over and all the beautiful cinematography in the world can’t make it go down smooth.
But I’ll be honest, and even benevolent, when I tell you that I could forgive all that. I could forgive every cliché because they’re just so damn digestible. However, “Teen Spirit” lacks resolution and depth and that I cannot forgive.
It feels that “Teen Spirit” dances its way into a third act without any real direction on what the central conflict is and why. Instead, what we get is a bunch of random conflicts that either go nowhere or have stakes that are so low that you wonder why we spent so much time on it.
So Vlad is estranged from his daughter. Why? What happens when he goes to find her in Paris?
So Violet is from such a poor family that her mother has to sell her beloved horse. Are we supposed to understand that winning this contest changes that?
So there’s a love triangle and a rival and a bad boy singer, leading Violet astray. Cool fifteen minutes, buy why y’all?
You see where I’m going.
A commentary on the destructive seductions of fame is all well and good, but it must have depth. If you’re going to do the tried and true “big city dreams” formula, there’s gotta be a conflict and it can be as cliché as you want, you just have to pick one.
By neglecting both options, “Teen Spirit” has an emptiness that makes it as easily forgettable as that Top 40 hit that’s overplaying on the radio. Though there are hooks and themes that stick in your head…
My verdict? “Teen Spirit,” as a whole, is unremarkable and fun but forgettable. However, there is a lot of promise here and the film denotes a keen eye for beauty and cinematic composition. The foundation is there and I look forward to seeing Max Minghella mature, in his career.
“Teen Spirit” arrives in theaters on April 19!
Featured photo credit: LD Entertainment | Bleecker Street
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.