In a word, Max Minghella’s directorial debut Teen Spirit is dualized: at once unfussy and familiar, inventive and invigorating. Wholly enlivening. There is a palpable confidence to the musical drama that spins Cinderella’s story to a fuschia-flooded stage, shines her glass slipper with glitter and gusto — and a little gin, too.
Led by Elle Fanning in a spirited (no pun intended) turn that dances along both the edges of belief aplomb and introversion abound, Teen Spirit centers on 17-year-old Violet Valenski, a reserved high school student who calls the Isle of Wight — the batarang-shaped island off England’s southern coast — home and who scrapes together extra cash working as a waitress. Violet lives with her single mother, the hagridden Polish immigrant Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska), on a farm at the disadvantaged end of the Isle, but dreams of a life beyond bussing tables at the billiards hall and stacking up bales of hay ever higher outside the farmhouse barn. She longs to be a singer, center-stage and shining. And though she manufactures a tiny dream world at a dive bar, belting out covers of Ellie Goulding songs to the confusion of drunkards in the audience, Violet knows this isn’t her endgame. She’s proven right when Teen Spirit, an American Idol-style singing competition, touches down in the Isle of Wight.
Violet secures an audition (in secret) and smashes it, moving to the next round without her mother knowing. Like the Disney character who goes from unknown dreamer to popular princess, Violet gets her own guardian and guiding light: the washed-up opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who had seen her perform at the dingy pub. Vlad accompanies Violet on her subsequent auditions, signing atop all the appropriate dotted lines on permission slips in place of Violet’s mother, and forms a bond with the young girl that begins as a money-fueled alliance (he’ll only offer his tips and techniques on the condition that he gets a cut of any cash she may earn) and ultimately evolves into a surprisingly sentimental friendship built on a cracked foundation of loss, broken hearts, and a shared fear of abandonment.
With her flaxen hair and golden voice (Fanning’s own — no dubs to be heard), Violet is our Cinderella. With his big belly and sometimes-gruff, sometimes-sweet demeanor, Vlad is her unconventional fairy godfather. Together, with their scarred souls and rough corners, they are an unlikely but enamoring pair. Violet faces critics at every turn — plus a devil in a handsome man (aren’t they all?) and a cunning music manager Jules (a fantastic Rebecca Hall) that threaten to rip her star out of the sky just as it’s beginning to rise. Vlad tries his best to bat them away. They both learn and grow, and sing and dance, and cry and yell and apologize. They are kinetic and chaotic — intoxicating.
Fanning is the obvious supernova of Teen Spirit, bringing a purity and depth to Violet that makes the actress and the woman she plays seem wiser than their years. This film perhaps is Fanning at her most incandescent. The seams that stitch the 21-year-old to Violet are non-existent: the two meld into one flawlessly. Fanning takes on Violet’s English-to-Polish-to-pop-song-singing style of speech and embodies her virtues and vulnerabilities as if they were her own. It’s near alarming how good Fanning is, how much of herself she pours into her projects. That she isn’t universally being heralded as one of this generation’s best stars is beyond comprehension.
Such a dazzling performance risks being destroyed in the hands of a clumsy director — which Minghella could not be further from. Immune from distraction and carrying a fever-dream-y aesthetic, Minghella fashions Robyn-and-Sia-soaked fairy tale of a feature that shows and doesn’t tell, offers only what’s paramount to the narrative and scraps the rest. As Fanning believes in Violet, Minghella believes in the audience. Both take Teen Spirit to the stratosphere. Add in the elevating efforts of cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who lacquers Minghella’s musing of Teen Spirit with a gloss and a glimmer, and the film’s duplexity (bright lights and big worries, growing fame and a fractured family) shimmers all the more stunning.
Teen Spirit is not unlike the pop songs that make up its skeleton: it’s simple in story but punchy in execution. It’s infectious — just as the “baby-baby-baby”s of Bieber-babbled tunes are, just as Ariana Grande and Carly Rae Jepsen’s entire discographies are — and zizzing with an energy that will make even the most festival-averse people toss tinsel in their hair and dance, with abandon and drenched in the rainbows beaming off the grandstand, to the music. It’s bittersweet, too, bringing us into the lives of people who have been broken and who still believe a better tomorrow isn’t out of reach.
Despite being a little clichéd in its premise (the small-town-girl-makes-it-big narrative is one tried and true — we all know how hard-luck stars are born), Teen Spirit rockets to the top thanks to the delicious combination of Minghella’s cut-away-at-the-fat confident direction and Fanning’s angsty, assured, unguarded performance. Though both born into families who know film inside and out (Minghella’s the son of late Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella, Fanning’s got an older sister who began acting before she could write), the director and his star don’t initially strike as a perfect match — then soon prove a toothsome two, each congruous with the other’s convictions and cinematic visions. The end result is a coming-of-age tale (through which actor-turned-writer-director Minghella, in a way, comes of age as well) that is as intelligent as it is intimate. What so easily could have been a romanticization of a problem-beset pair a la Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born or a cheap, shouty version of Natalie Portman’s Vox Lux avoids those pitfalls, and winds up bold and beautiful, bigger than its body.