Teen Spirit - Review

Elle Fanning and Autumn Durald carry a film that would otherwise go straight to the bargain bin.

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At some point or another, most every teenager has wished they could be the winner of a local singing competition with rude judges and devouring fans. The dream, the euphoria, the post-showstopper jitters; it’s the kind of emotion that brings people to idiotic things, like accept rides from strangers and then get mentored by said stranger. Teen Spirit is awash in the cliches of the coming-of-age teen drama, spearheaded by films like Pretty in Pink, and basically everything John Hughes was a part of. In recent years the genre has seen an uptick with films like The Edge of Seventeen and Eighth Grade, but as if on cue, b-level cash-ins like Teen Spirit crop up to suck the marrow out of a once lively genre, imagining that flashy colors and fast montages are the trick to engaging storytelling.

Elle Fanning stars as Violet Valenski, a teenager in the Isle of Wight, U.K., and sporting a fairly convincing accent. She listens to pop music, dances in her room, and spends time with her horse in massive flower fields: everything the hopeful pop-star handbook suggests. Her key difference comes in an unlikely manager and teacher, former opera singer Vlad (Zlato Burić). Their relationship is every disgraced master/naive apprentice dynamic: Star Wars, The Karate Kid, Creed; practically every relationship in Teen Spirit is lifted from a better story, leaving room for emotion to guide the narrative. But Teen Spirit refuses to be anything other than totally depressed at all times, killing any opportunity for growth and creating plenty of pacing issues.

Though her character rarely overcomes emotion off-stage, Elle Fanning is supremely watchable. Her looks, delivery, and style lend well to the small-town-teen-with-a crappy-job archetype. Her mother is oppressive, her father is out of the picture, and though she is often seen at parties, she doesn’t have any friends. Shots of Violet in a pool or casually flirting with a guy are thrown in just for the “we got it!” factor of a teen drama. Kids party, right? They feel anxious in social situations and wade in pools for prolonged periods, right? Cinematography from Autumn Durald carries the film through its lowest points, subtly communicating with tracking shots and exceptionally-lit performances what the script blasts from a megaphone at every chance: THIS IS AN UNDERDOG STORY.

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Near the 30 minute mark of Teen Spirit, something surprising happens: the film reaches its climax. Violet auditions for the titular singing competition, makes it past the first round, and belts Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” with massive drama. Lights flash, palms sweat, and the first of many montages shows up to muddle the frame. It’s one of the better sung moments, and a crucial scene for Fanning (who sings for the film), but in the sequence of cuts there is story, exposition, and other filler that should never be established after the fact. “Dancing On My Own” is the first release, Violet’s stepping out and facing of her less-than-flattering stage presence, yet we are treated to flashbacks of home, Violet’s confused mother, and more walks alone/with horse shot in wide shaky cam. A lack of character development means this could be the last scene in the film, and nothing would change. Like the song choice in Teen Spirit (aside from “Don’t Kill My Vibe”), the film struggles to realize the difference between popular and lasting. Do not compare this to A Star is Born.