‘Teen Spirit’ Review: This one smells like a letdown, despite Elle Fanning

Toronto International Film Festival

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston originally reviewed ‘Teen Spirit’ as part of Toronto International Film Festival, but we’re publishing it again as it hits local theaters this week. Click here for our full coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

It’s no secret that I think Elle Fanning is one of the most exciting and talented young actors of her generation, who has never been afraid to give her all to a project, be it a wonderful exploration of youth like John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties or a distant, weird science-fiction film like Reed Morano’s I Think We’re Alone Now. Based on her presence alone, I was pumped for Max Minghalla’s directorial debut Teen Spirit, a new pop jukebox musical that never quite lives up to the massive amount of hype it accrued after its first screening at TIFF.

It’s all gloss and glitter that, despite Fanning’s incredible talents, never really shines.

Fanning plays Violet, an English teenager whose daily routine on her home, the Isle of Wight, we glimpse while Grimes blasts from her iPod. She tends to her sheep, sings in her church choir and a local bar, heads to school, works at a diner and deals with her overbearing but loving Polish mother, who doesn’t understand why she would want to be singing in the first place. It’s by happenstance that she meets the burly but kindly drunk Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who senses that she has true talent, and, when Violet is forbidden from trying out for a teen singing competition, the titular “Teen Spirit,” he steps up and offers to pretend to be her guardian for a share of the profits should she win.

As they work together, she discovers Vlad’s past — he was once an incredible opera singer before the sauce took him down after his wife’s passing and estranged him from his daughter — and the two become fast friends, with Vlad filling a nice that she’s never had in her life before: A surrogate father as well as a vocal coach. Violet soon begins to win stages of the competition, and soon enough, success is threatening to nip her career in the bud before she even makes it, and might ruin her friendship with Vlad.

Minghalla’s never able to put his plot together in a way that feels organic and alive, and it feels like a scattershot collage of other films across the “youth” genre. Is this American Dreamz, where we’re following people trying to make their way to the top via a TV show, or is this The Jazz Singer, where a young person looking to pursue a career in show business is forced to reckon with their family’s religious distaste for her dreams? Or maybe it’s something like Finding Forrester, where an old, formerly famous man who disappeared into obscurity helps a kid find their way? Perhaps it could have been more interesting if these characters were giving the time to shine, but they’re caught in the same bland trappings that sink everything else about the movie. The show has no identity beyond that it is a synthy miasma of “modern youth culture,” the mother’s church community never registers as the oppressive force that Minghalla and company hope it feels like, and the characters, while likably portrayed, aren’t anything more than cyphers.

The film’s one saving grace is the musical performances, where Fanning and company give it their absolute best: She totally kills Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” in her first try-out, a number whose energy and excitement the whole film chases from then on out. It’s almost like her work there delivers a shot of adrenaline straight to Minghalla’s amygdala, as he basically crafts a beautiful music video for the track, spanning all the different and disparate things that run through her mind as she’s riding the waves of emotion buried in the Swedish pop singer’s writing.

It shows a flair and life that the rest of Teen Spirit has a ton of trouble matching in the intervening 90 minutes, and left me wishing for a film that could.