Saturday 20 November 2021

Movie Review: Teen Spirit (2018)

A routine teen drama with music, Teen Spirit is firmly stuck in cliche underdog territory despite a strong central performance and an off-beat location.

Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning) is a shy music-loving seventeen year-old of Polish descent growing up on the Isle of Wight. She loves to sing and performs at the near-empty local bar, but tries to hide her passion from her disapproving mother Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska). One night she is applauded by the frumpy Vlad Brajkovic (Zlatko Buric), a former Croatian opera singer now mostly living inside the bottle.

Despite Maria's concerns, Violet enters the national Teen Spirit talent competition for aspiring singers, and recruits Vlad's help first as a guardian then as a vocal coach and manager. She makes it through the first few rounds, and her local high school band starts backing her. When Violet surprisingly qualifies for the finals in London and in front of a massive television audience, culture shocks await.

Director and writer Max Minghella's father Anthony was from the Isle of Wight off England's south coast, and Max uses the island as a suitably quirky setting and symbol of isolation from mainstream culture. But beyond an enjoyable first act introducing Violet and Vlad, the rest of Teen Spirit is quickly swallowed up by television-level material featuring a teenager fumbling her way into adulthood with pitfalls around every corner.

Elle Fanning is by far the best thing in the movie and works hard to create a downbeat but determined young woman, and she sings with conviction. Between navigating her mother's anxieties and looking for an outlet to define herself, Violet never smiles, and Fanning's posture conveys a teenager carrying the strain of a foggy future.

But she is not well served by a script unable to get under the character's skin. Despite a dark and shiny aesthetic, some fine directorial touches, and a welcome depiction of immigrants, the problems multiply once the competition starts. The film wades into overly familiar territory and hits every longshot and performer/coach cliche. Never-developed side-stories are thrown haphazardly at the screen, including Violet's missing father, Vlad's life regrets and estranged daughter, a few barely-defined rivals, and clumsy encounters with alcohol and boys.  

Rebecca Hall appears late and for a couple of scenes as a music industry shark ready to feed on young talent. Vlad offers trite advice about breathing, but how Violet draws the strength to advance from stiff empty-bar singer to a dynamic stage performer remains a total mystery. Teen Spirit tries to rock out, but recycles tired lyrics.

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