2019, PG-13, 92 min. Directed by Max Minghella. Starring Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., April 19, 2019
Films about fame are nothing new. Hollywood has always been a bit obsessed with the little monsters it creates, from classic era films Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve to more recent, albeit music-driven, examples like Vox Lux and Her Smell. The running theme is that the long-term effects of holding celebrity status over a period of time are, well, not great. Teen Spirit (the directorial debut from actor Max Minghella, aka Nick from The Handmaid’s Tale) is a little bit like a prelude to all that (it’s not about Nirvana or the Nineties deodorant that inspired that one song). This is the story (introduced in a soft-edged dreamy sequence that runs like a perfume ad) of a quiet, working-class teenager who lives on the Isle of Wight with her religious mother and a couple of farm animals and who wants to be a singer. When American Idol-esque talent show competition Teen Spirit rolls into town, she skips church to audition.
Fanning plays Violet with a sense of indifference that borders on numb, similar to The Neon Demon’s Jesse. This lack of emotion is even vocalized by a supporting character, Rebecca Hall’s pushy judge/producer, face caked with foundation that’s just a shade off, who asks her what she wants from the competition. It’s not just an irritating character flaw; these are still waters, and the answer is there, as long as you can read the signs. Violet is from a Polish immigrant family, and the dreams of fame are no flashing whimsy. Her big break could pull her and her mother from the immeasurable depths of poverty, and she may even get to reconnect with the father who abandoned them. None of this is immediately clear on a surface level, and the subtlety owes to a well-written script (credited solely to Minghella).
Violet’s ambitions don’t exactly ride a glittery ascending high to stardom, but rather pull her through a dark tunnel haunted by greedy goblins and bad decisions, with a broken-down drunk ex-opera singer (Buric) as her spirit guide (actually, the relationship between the two is the most endearing and realistic part of the film). Lighting choices alternate between too little and too much. When Violet first appears before the judges the three of them are cast in so much shadow the whole thing feels more like a fraternity’s hazing ritual than a talent showcase. The musical performances increasingly become larger than life, with throbbing, generic beats and seizure-inducing neon strobes – a nihilistic carnival ride of possibility. Besides the instrumental drone, the music consists of covers, and that’s where Interscope’s hand in the production really shows. It seems that no matter how many times pop chews up and regurgitates itself, it ain’t dead yet.