WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Violet is a socially awkward daughter of a Polish single-mother who immigrated to the United States to try and make a better life for her and her daughter. Unfortunately, things haven’t quite worked out that way and Violet’s entire life seems to be made up of nothing but school and working at menial jobs to help bring in enough money for her mother and her to live. Her one escape from her humdrum life is that she she loves to sing and is very good at it. All she wants is a chance to compete on a singing competition show, Teen Spirit, but her mother sees concentrating on her schoolwork as the only way for Violet to have a better future and competing on Teen Spirit would just be a distraction. When Violet catches the attention of a retired opera singer from Croatia, however, she is finally presented with a way to fulfil her dreams.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
The great problem with Teen Spirit, the directorial début from actor Max Minghella, is that there’s little in it that you can’t get from watching a single episode of one of the many talent-competition shows out there. In particular, the story of our titular hero, Violet, has no more depth or substance than one of those ten-minute clips in something like American Idol, where one of the contestants talk about their own background and why winning American Idol/ The Voice whatever is so important to them. That’s rather an issue when you have a ninety-minute film on your hands.
What’s really strange, though, is that although the film’s 90-minute runtime drags on and on, with really not enough story, character development or even musical numbers to justify even so short a movie, it also feels like it’s a 150-minute movie squeezed into ninety minutes. Worse, there also doesn’t even seem to be any rhyme or reason to how those edits were made. It comes across instead like someone took a much too long movie, fed it into a computer programme that randomly cuts whole scenes out of the film to bring it down to the required length, and then released it into cinemas without checking the final results.
What results is a film that gives the impression that not only did you miss the first ten minutes, but you keep falling asleep for a couple of minutes at random intervals. The plot is simple enough that you can still follow the film, but it does make for a bewildering experience. Sadly, that level of weak storytelling runs through the entire film.
It’s a pity because even if there was little chance of a film with this sort of plotline being particularly original, it should be entertaining. And, with the smallest amount of emotional manipulation, it wouldn’t even take much to have it pull on the old heartstrings. Not unlike an episode of one of those competition shows, come to think of it. Plus, with a young actress as good as Elle Fanning in the lead, how wrong could it really go?
The answer, unfortunately, is that despite a typically solid performance by Fanning and an equally solid performance by celebrated Dutch-Croatian actor, Zlatko Buric, very little about the film works. It’s emotionally inert when it should be uplifting, leaden when it should be lively, and dreary when it should be zippy. The characters are uninteresting, the plotting haphazard and the musical numbers are far blander than the flashy, music-video-esque editing might suggest.
What’s particularly odd is that for a film that plays out like a random episode of American Idol, it’s weirdly unbelievable. For a start, though Elle Fanning is a very fine singer, she is absolutely not the sort that would win this sort of competition. She’s less about the sort of showy singing that normally does well in these competitions but comes across more like an indie singer/songwriter inspired by female-led New Wave bands. I personally far prefer her singing, actually, to the sub-Christina-Aguilera vocal gymnastics that tend to win such competitions but, that’s exactly the point: I don’t usually like the sort of singers that win these sorts of competitions.
That said, the actual music in the film isn’t bad. It’s not great, and it’s not all that memorable, but with songwriting credits that include Annie Lennox, Tegan & Sara, and Ellie Goulding, it maintains a professional, very slightly indie veneer to the proceedings that sadly isn’t found in the filmmaking.
Max Minghella, who writes and directs the film, is an actor by trade but he is the son of the acclaimed director, Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mt Ripley). Unfortunately, though it’s entirely possible that he will massively improve with practice, this is an inauspicious start to a career behind the camera and certainly a far cry from the work of his famous father. His heart is clearly in the right place, and there’s nothing to get really upset about, but there is something troubling about the fact that the worst thing, by far, about Teen Spirit is that it is, ultimately, a bit inept as a piece of filmmaking.