Teen Spirit touches on so many music and movie clichés that it feels like the cinematic equivalent of those old magazine ads where you could get nine CDs for a penny. It doesn’t take heavy scrutiny to spot the influence of A Star is Born, Flashdance, and even 8 Mile permeating through every scene. Hell, with the surly, up-and-coming challenger being trained by a crusty, woulda-coulda mentor, I even got a little Rocky vibe in there somewhere. While this movie trods a well-trampled path, it does so with such infectious giddiness and sure-footed skill that Teen Spirit still manages to be a breezy, entertaining journey.
The story focuses on Violet (Elle Fanning), a painfully bashful teenager from the Isle of Wight. As a volatile blend of sullen, smart, and spirited, Violet feels a lot like an older, British cousin to Elsie Fisher’s character in Eighth Grade. Violet moves in quiet misery between an invisible existence at school, a shitty job bussing drinks at a bar, and supporting her parochial, perpetually stern mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). Fortunately, Violet has pocket aces in the form of a sultry, powerful singing voice. She belts out songs at a local dive, and quietly enters a Simon Cowell-type talent show. This catches the eye and ear of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a frumpy, burly man who was once a great opera tenor. Vlad looks on Violet with a fatherly twinkle, and attempts to smooth out the wrinkles in her performance and groom her stage presence for inevitable stardom.
This movie borrows so much from so many sources (Irene Cara pops on a radio, making the Flashdance reference unabashedly overt), that Teen Spirit could’ve been a boring, unwatchable disaster. Fortunately, this film is also a star-making vehicle for Elle Fanning, and she thoroughly kills it as Violet: Her icy petulance is a thin facade, concealing layers of depth, warmth, and vulnerability beneath. Fanning also has a sweet interplay with Buric, the curmudgeonly dad she never knew she needed. Rebecca Hall adds some calculated charisma as a gatekeeping talent scout who might be ushering Violet down a path of decadence and destruction.
It may be 92 minutes of sheer fluffery, but Teen Spirit has just enough brains and bounce to make it a fun little movie. Fanning sells her performance and sings with conviction, and this does a lot to elevate the entire production. Writer-director Max Minghella (son of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella) supplies the story with just enough dramatic beats to make the characters relatable, while never allowing his script to wallow in self-seriousness. The songs, written by a host of pop maestros, ain’t gonna kick off a musical revolution, but they’re all catchy enough. In fact, that sums up Teen Spirit as a whole: The story may not cover any new ground, but it is a reminder of why you enjoyed going there in the first place.