The past six months have come to provide a strange glut of films about female musicians in some capacity. First came A Star is Born and its vision of Lady Gaga as an unknown singer, then Vox Lux followed, with a much darker look on fame and the music industry. Now, just as the Alex Ross Perry film Her Smell finally begins to play in theaters and outside of festivals, we’ve been given Teen Spirit. The most teenage-friendly production of the group, it’s a film that is solely aimed at Instagram users.
That’s not necessarily a knock against it, but it certainly says a lot about the limitations of the film due to the target audience. Max Minghella’s directorial debut focuses on a working class Polish girl named Violet (Elle Fanning), who lives on the isolated Isle of Wright and wants to pursue a career in the music industry. When she’s not working with her mother Marla (Angieszka Grochowska) at the local bowling alley, she’s singing her heart out at a pub frequented by older men. One of these men, a former opera singer named Vlad (Zlatko Buric) is enamored by her soft yet strong vocals, and the two of them form a plan: audition for Teen Spirit, the biggest singing competition TV show in the United Kingdom, and win the grand prize – a record label deal.
In order to win, Violet must deal with her fellow competitors, her mother’s resistance to a career in music, and the somewhat shady dealings of Jules (Rebecca Hall), an executive with a lucrative and enticing offer for Violet. Will she win the British equivalent of American Idol, or will the curtain go down on her career before it even begins? Will she be a pop star, or a burnout?
Does it even matter? That’s the largest problem Teen Spirit faces, and ultimately fails to overcome. There’s just not enough weight in the narrative to make the audience about Violet and her struggles. Every part of the story has had the edges on it sanded off for maximum appeal. The antagonistic characters, such as Jules, never go beyond being slightly rude, and the conflict between Violet and Vlad is half-baked tripe about the “evils of the music industry”. The script is lacking in tension and meaningful moments for the characters, and by keeping them paper-thin, it’s hard to care.
Violet herself is an enigma. The film never gets into her head, stubbornly keeping her an opaque figure. Fanning tries to give her a personality, but her slippery accent and thread-bare moments of characterization in the script fail both the actress and the character. It’s disappointing, given her inspired turns in The Neon Demon and The Beguiled, among other recent projects.
Despite the negatives, it’s not a complete failure. The score by Marius de Vries is a smart collection of original music and reworked instrumentals of pop songs such as Katy Perry’s “E.T.” and Major Lazer’s “Lean On”. DP Autumn Durald drenches the film in some lovely shades of neon, and highlights the artificiality of pop by making it resemble a music video. The performances in the film are generally solid, with the clear highlight being Fanning’s audition for the competition. The film cuts between her singing Robyn’s love-lorn anthem “Dancing On My Own” and images of her dreary, painfully dull life, and it highlights one of the truths about pop music: it helps us escape the world we live in, and find the place where we want to be.
Unfortunately, the film only holds on to that truth for just a moment, before reversing back to the potboiler story of a teenage girl who wants to be a star. Lacking in depth, Teen Spirit is merely a shallow pleasure.
Teen Spirit will be released in theaters on April 19th.