“Teen Spirit” is an American Idol-esque pop reality competition in which teens sing and dance in hopes of achieving a record contract. Violet (Elle Fanning) is a seventeen-year-old who sneaks out at night to perform to a near-empty dive bar. She croons to one listener, silhouetted by a neon heart sign. “I was a fool,” she repeats until the song fades, and the one man (Zlatko Buric) claps.
When Violet decides to register for the “Teen Spirit” competition, she enlists this man—she later finds out he is a former opera singer—to pose as her legal guardian, as she believes her mother will not cosign her dream of stardom. He agrees to be her manager, for a hefty percentage commission if she makes it big, and she finds herself whisked into the audition process.
Max Minghella’s film flourishes in these sequences of performance. Rapidly edited, neon hued montages of people dancing and singing shoot life into the film. Surrounding these competition segments is a life of monotony and flatness. Minghella shoots Violet’s life outside of the competition with less light, less depth, and a more dour color palette. These scenes also sag with a slowing weight.
While seemingly intentional in order to show why the shiny life Violet is aspiring to is so alluring, it results in a more plodding film. It would be less dreary and plodding, perhaps, if this whisked-into-the-limelight narrative wasn’t so overdone. But Teen Spirit does not set itself apart from the prototypical narrative it adopts.
Yes, there are well-executed scenes, and Elle Fanning’s performance is quietly gravitational (as her acting performances often are). When Violet performs Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” there is a haunting brilliance to both Fanning’s on-stage performing and Minghella’s music video editing choices.
But the narrative that surrounds these performances (which are few and far between as it is) is rote and hollow. There is a conflict over signing a potentially damaging record contract. There is a potentially damaging love interest character. There is potentially damaging intoxicants. Potentially damaging promises of stardom. Potentially damaging isolation from the people in Violet’s life who actually care. Et cetera.
What is meant to add depth to this storytelling also rings superficial and hollow. There is a party sequence laced with ridiculously on-the-nose song choices. There is a necklace used as a similarly on-the-nose symbol. There is an obvious angel motif. There is a scene in a church that spells out the potential ramifications of the narrative. And the final, climactic song? You guessed it; it taps the tip of that nose.
Teen Spirit is half a jukebox—er, a Spotify—musical, half a music industry and reality show satire, and this combination works as a backdrop for a loss of innocence drama. None of that is particularly novel in practice, and the creative choices made scarcely make up for that. The stages are streaked with cascading lights that shine on Violet’s talent, but the rest of her world is dreary and flat.
Both worlds look nauseating in their own way. So where does our investment in Violet come in? We hope for something in between, a place that clearly does not exist in the “Teen Spirit” world. So it’s a tragedy from the start, I guess, in spite of where the plot concludes. Ultimately, this makes for a hollow experience, one in which we may root for the character, but we root for her to do anything other than what she chooses to do.
Teen Spirit: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)