Singing a Musical Fairytale in Teen Spirit

Filmmakers Max Minghella and Jamie Bell show fame's light & shadow

Every TV singing competition peddles a fairytale ending: sing well enough, and the world will make you the princess you were always supposed to be. Musical dramas are always about the dark side of fame, the collapse of the celebrity. Teen Spirit, the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella, has both the light and the shadow of those stories.

Elle Fanning as Violet, the musical Cinderella in Teen Spirit

The film, which played at SXSW, follows Elle Fanning as Violet, the daughter of a Polish migrant living on a small British island, who dreams of making it big on a televised talent show. The unlikely figure of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a former musician with his own dreams, becomes her guide on her path to stardom, but it's not all green rooms and Cadillacs.

Minghella developed the story with Jamie Bell (who, as the young star of Billy Elliott, has his own experience of early fame), but aside from the dissection of fame and American Idol-style talent shows, there's also a quiet story about being an immigrant, always outside the culture. He said, "My parents are both immigrants, and they're very loudly immigrants, it's a huge part of who they are. They can't carry themselves without it spilling out."

Austin Chronicle: There's a constant sense of darkness and frustration and isolation surrounding these characters, but there's still a sense of light somewhere over the horizon.

Max Minghella: I'd heard this Robyn album, and I really responded to this tonal dichotomy, that is melancholic underneath it all, but it has that optimism and hope. So I wrote that scene, the "Dancing on My Own" performance scene, and that's where we started from, and we built the story around it.

I was also very interested in [Buric], and I wanted to write something for him, so there were just these different elements. I shared a very early draft with Jamie, who's one of my oldest and dearest friends, and we were keen to collaborate on something. He instantly had such smart things to say about the script, and where we could take it, and where we could improve it, and crystalize.

There's lots of thematic things in the movie that we connect to. It's a deeply personal film for both of us, in different ways. There's something weird about making a movie: It's quite therapeutic. You're learning about yourself after the fact, and there's lots of stuff I'm realizing. Even yesterday, when I was watching it, I was going, "Oh, that's something I need to address with the therapist I don't have."

AC: That's the filmmaking process, that you work out what you were going for once it's done. But what was the biggest thing you worked out?

Jamie Bell: I think there's certainly something. I grew up without a father, and it's very clear there's no father in this movie. The relationship towards mothers is interesting in this film, and I think that says something about my own relationship with my own mother. That was something I discovered last night, that it's saying something very loudly about paternal relationship.

Here's the thing. When you've worked on something that's so personal, and you've paced around a room for months, in various different places – you moved three times to different apartment, and I have different versions of Hell – but when you see things that you just know work, and you hear a response with an audience, there's something so validating about it. There is a sense of echo chamber, there's a vacuum that to believe in this story but you don't necessarily know if it will resonate.

Austin Chronicle: You've talked about how unlikely and pivotal the relationship between Vlad and Violet is. They're two people who have a void in their lives, and they get someone who fills that space in their life, if just for a little while. That makes Vlad a tougher figure to get right: how did you meet Zlatko?

“They’re opportunistic on both sides, and it develops into something meaningful. It’s a true relationship, because not everyone’s an amazing person.”
MM: I saw him in a bunch of movies when we first started thinking about this film. He was in Nick Refn's Pusher movies, he was in this Roland Emmerich movie, 2012, and he really stood out. His voice is so amazing. Nobody else could play this part – I really believe that, I don't think the movie could function with any other actor. It's so specific, who this person is, and what we need to accept from him.

What I like about the relationship is that they meet for very selfish reasons. A lot of the time, they're not using each other for the right reasons.

JB: She's using him, because she needs a lie, and she wants money. He see an opportunity.

MM: They're opportunistic on both sides, and it develops into something meaningful. It's a true relationship, because not everyone's an amazing person. That's not how I see the world.

AC: One of the timely aspects is that Violet and Vlad are both Eastern European migrants, and it's part of them, but it's not a film about immigration. Was that always in the mix?

MM: Originally, the script was set in Croatia, because Zlatko is from Croatia, and we really were building the movie around him. Then we ended up going to Poland, for some reason. But in any incarnation, it was always the story of an outsider. In the first incarnation, it was a Croatian girl going to London. It ended up being a Polish girl already on the Isle of Wight, and not feeling a part of that culture.

I don't think we're interested at all in didactic filmmaking, or telling people something is bad when we know it's bad. It's not interesting to me. I don't need to get a message in a movie that way, I don't go there for a history lesson. At the same time, her identity permeates all the way through the movie. In every scene, I feel she is not of this culture.

JB: There's an acceptance for her that she'll always be different. Her final song choice is not something that plays to judges, but that's who she is.

Teen Spirit is in theaters now. For review and listings, head over to Showtimes.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Richard Whittaker
One in a Crowd: Vulcan Video Needs Your Help
One in a Crowd: Vulcan Video Needs Your Help
Keep the tapes rolling at Austin's VHS and DVD institution

May 23, 2019

RTX Orders a <i>Stuber</i>
RTX Orders a Stuber
Rooster Teeth snags special screening of the SXSW favorite

May 23, 2019


Teen Spirit, Max Minghella, Jamie Bell, Zlatko Buric, Elle Fanning

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle