Teen Spirit is a vibe, an experience, powered by the sonic grace of some of the foremost pop music operators in the world and the visual grace of a riveting performance, songs included, by Elle Fanning and a talented creative team led by cinematographer Autumn Durald. The title refers to the fictional Idol-like competition that Fanning’s Violet Valenski is inspired to enter as a way to escape her rural surroundings and drown herself in music. There is an awkward tension between the grinding familiarity of the Pop Idol fantasy and the sheer amount of style and ingenuity that writer/director Max Minghella infuses into Violet’s inner world and the gaudy trappings of the TV based popularity machine throughout the film that the filmmakers can’t quite resolve, which is my only qualm or complaint in an otherwise inventive and evocative film.
Teen Spirit begins with a lovely, languid prologue set to the strains of dark dream pop mistress Grimes which introduces us to Violet’s vibrant interior musical life, powered by one of those tactile old iPods music nerds are always going on about, in the fields around her ramshackle house on the Isle of Wight. It’s a lovely, deep inhale before we power out of the starting blocks for Teen Spirit’s 92 minute wind sprint. The film gestures quickly and efficiently enough at the outlines of Violet’s external life that we can catch the contours at speed, masterfully aided by costumer designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s expressive application of the track suit trappings of Violet’s working class milieu.
It doesn’t take long for us to transition from experiencing Violet’s taste in music to experiencing Violet’s, and Fanning’s vocal ability. We catch her singing the tail end of Tegan and Sara’s “I was a Fool,” a rueful pop song whose style is decidedly out of joint with the dingy lounge Violet sings it in, though her vocal quality is not lost on down-on-his-luck former opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric who appears in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy, no reason for mentioning that), the unlikely mentor who will help push and prod and annoy Violet into unleashing the star inside of her when she finally grasps the opportunity the Teen Spirit billboards shout about in this neglected part of the United (for now) Kingdom.
Teen Spirit offers us a few more musical teases like the prologue and that Tegan and Sara joint in rundown place with the dreamily glowing juke box and glorious moment of solitude in her room when a frustrated Violet thrashes her heart out to “I’m Just a Girl” (which is having a bit of a moment), trial balloons floated by Minghella and company before Violet’s audition for Teen Spirit when the film really takes flight. Minghella dives into Violet’s inner world as she works up to the emotional state necessary to crank out Robyn’s jam “Dancing on My Own.” Minghella weaves inner exhaustion, her fears, how it makes her feel to sing and her fractured relationship with her mother over the course of the the song. It’s an elegant privilege to be granted access to Violet’s interiority, rather than having her take a deep breath and sing a great song. It’s a performance reserved only for us, the privileged viewers allowed inside Violet’s inner world and it puts the judges in their place (we don’t even see their faces): music is Violet’s life and they can recognize it or not (they, uh, do).
Each subsequent performance for the competition, which Violet naturally qualifies for, what are we even doing if she doesn’t, becomes more and more stylistically elaborate, more explicitly influenced by neon drenched music videos, though it maintains a dreamy, gauzy vibe even to the bops. Minghella never loses sight of Violet’s inner life, the organizing principle of the film. Violet’s song choices alternate between elegiac and defiant and they are utterly free of treacle or condescension. Pop music is forever accused of triviality (bubble gum, disposable, etc) but Teen Spirit explores pop music performance animated by substance, sadness, and heft, and doesn’t at all judge you for wanting to dance at the same time.
Teen Spirit passingly acknowledges many of the topics and subplots that are instantly recognizable from typical teen movies about discovering yourself and success; many of those films devoted themselves to exploring romantic jealousy, teen angst, school bullying, the dangers of being a young woman being by herself. Teen Spirit doesn’t dwell on any of them. On some levels this is rewarding. We are mercifully spared the dreary task of watching “the drama” of a reality TV competition play out in a movie, a meta level of boredom I hope never to participate in. On the other hand, If there’s a “but” hanging over Teen Spirit, it is that the lightning quick storytelling and the almost solipsistic focus on Violet seem to indicate that Minghella and Fanning don’t have much insight into the fame machine. It’s clearly a lived experience (you might know who Minghella’s dad was and he’s a famous actor in his own right) for both of them and there are flashes of wisdom and maturity, moments when you can tell they recognize there is something wrong with the system, but not well enough to articulate what that thing is, let alone how to fix it. For all of the visual verve of this film and Fanning’s great performance, this lack of attention to issues that the film itself raises is a weight that drags the film down a bit from its deliriously stylish heights.
Teen Spirit is in danger of losing itself just before Violet’s final performance, but fortunately Minghella and company re-group and deliver hard on the Teen Spirit finale, in two parts. The first part is just great storytelling as Violet puts on her game face in the long walk from backstage to onstage that is an exquisite short film in and of itself, making the best possible use of all the elements of good long walk and talk, but without the talk. It’s a stunning testament to Fanning’s quality as an actress that just watching her face is such an experience (ultimately, the entire movie is dedicated to the idea that watching Fanning’s face is a worthwhile experience and it’s not wrong). And then Violet goes out on stage and absolutely owns Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” It’s such a shatteringly good experience, such a ferocious performance that the movie could have ended with the song. I would have left the theater entirely satisfied if we never knew whether Violet won the competition or not. Minghella gives us a coda that asserts unequivocally that she did win, but it is a light touch and just enough for us to appreciate that Violet became a star as much on her own terms as is possible in this world (this coda features a brief, full-on collision between Elle Fanning as Violet and Elle Fanning as Elle Fanning, a flash into the open of a self-reflectivity that murmurs below the surface of the whole). Minghella might have made more out of this story and this performance, but you know what? I’m not here to kill anyone’s vibe, let alone Elle Fanning’s. Teen Spirit is a gauzy, dreamy bubble gum pop fantasy with great taste in music. It’s a bop.