(Everyman Music Film Festival 9th - 26th May 2019, Everyman Kings Cross,
14-18 Handyside Street, London N1C 4DN)
Violet (Elle Fanning) is a shy teenager who dreams of escaping her small town and pursuing her passion to sing. With the help of Vlad (Zlatko Buric) ,an unlikely mentor, she enters a local singing competition that will test her integrity, talent and ambition. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, "Teen Spirit" is a visceral and stylish spin on 'The Cinderella Story'.
The film creates a modern fairytale, scored to a lush, pop soundtrack, about a quiet 17-year-old girl who finds the support and self-confidence she needs to step into her own power. Violet lives with her Polish-immigrant mother Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska) on the brink of poverty in a small village on 'The Isle Of Wight'. Her days are spent doing chores, waiting tables, and attending secondary school, where she keeps to herself. But in her free time, spent alone in her room, in the fields with her beloved horse, or at an under-attended open-mic night, Violet surrenders to song. She's a naturally gifted singer for whom pop stardom might not be mere fantasy. With her father Roger (Andrew Ellis) no longer in the picture, Violet helps out around the house, sings in the choir and works waitress shifts after school, passing her tips to her mother. Whenever she can, she sneaks off to perform at a dingy pub to a thin audience of deadbeats. It’s there that she catches the attention of Vlad, a down-on-his-luck, boozed-up former opera star who now lacks purpose in life. When Vlad hears Violet, he knows she's something special and declares himself her manager and trainer, accompanying her as she tries out for a popular televised musical talent program called 'Teen Spirit'. When a national singing competition comes to town to hold auditions, Vlad becomes Violet’s unlikely mentor and manager, accompanying her on a journey that takes the young singer all the way to the glamorous 'Teen Spirit' finals in London. Along the way, Violet learns about singing, about loyalty and about the kind of resilience it takes to find success. Vlad has his own demons, but if he and Violet can stick together as her star rises, they might just make each other better people.
In the beginning, Violet is untrained. She's a good singer and you see she has potential, but she doesn’t have a lot of stage presence in her voice. Violet works for months to strike that delicate balance and to invest the singing with the requisite emotion to profoundly move the audience. The feelings start to bubble up in Violet in an early scene, when she's seen dancing alone in her bedroom to the infectious strains of 'No Doubt'. The character of Violet dovetails much of ab experiences as an artist who's still learning and evolving. Everybody imagines themselves being the best at whatever they do, reaching the tip-top just like Violet. When Violet sings, we go into her head and see the performance she imagines she's giving with outstanding lighting, while cutting to supporting singers or dancers and revealing narrative information related to the song or her. They're all stunning, and feature interesting lighting and costumes. At it's essence, "Teen Spirit" is essentially an underdog story, and it hits most of the beats one would expect to encounter. Violet isn’t encouraged to pursue her dream by anyone around her. The only person who even seems remotely interested in her talent is Vlad, and when we first see him applauding, it’s hard to tell if it's sincere. You’ll love them and root for her through the competition, but you won’t really know why.
This may be by design, as one character, even questions Violet’s motives for competing in the talent show, and she doesn’t seem prepared to answer. Whether or not it’s by design that Violet’s drive is unclear, the film suffers as our main character’s agency feels empty. Violet feels underdeveloped, and so does Vlad. Much of their backstory feels rather generic, and just thrown at us as though that makes them deep. Still, by comparison to the underdeveloped story of the relationship with her mother, and, even worse, the relationship with her peers, Violet feels extremely complex. Violet runs into Luke (Archie Madekwe) at a party, then again at another one and we learn he’s in a band, and then we see her perform with the band. There isn’t any real depth, and the love interest that is hinted at feels flat and perfunctory. There are several more issues in this realm, and as the film goes farther, we’d expect to get to know Luke and the other two members of the band a bit more, but they're always kept at an extreme distance. The film imbues Violet’s dreary world with drama, capturing the lyricism of a field at magic hour or extending long beams of light against the night sky. By the end of the film, when she’s performing her climactic numbers, he sees evidence of the experience she’s accrued, a new strength and range. She’s inhabited by something quite different and it’s great to witness that curve of the performance emerge. It's an unabashed adventure in pop music.
The first draft of the script from 2009 was set in Poland, with 90 percent of the dialogue in Polish. It's extremely challenging to find someone who can sing, dance, speak two languages and act. The film is an immigrant story, which serves to make the film more personal and underlined themes that were already in the screenplay. Elle Fanning performs all the singing live. Audiences will experience a sense of discovery about Fanning in this role. Most of the songs in "Teen Spirit" are detailed in the initial drafts of the script and the sequences are shot very specifically to the film’s soundtrack, which features music by 'Ariana Grande', 'Robyn, Grimes', 'Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. There's also an original song performed by Fanning and written by 'Carly Rae Jepsen' & 'Jack Antonoff'. Music is the heart of "Teen Spirit". Music creates a visceral cinematic effect. Coupled with a highly stylized approach, the result is a film that balances the ecstatic rush of pop with a more soulful undertone. Driven by a pop-fueled soundtrack, "Teen Spirit" is a visceral and stylish spin on 'The Cinderella Story'.
It's unusual that a film of this scale would have such extensive lighting. It's very sculpted, visceral and visual, not in a handheld, quick-set-up way. The camera movement, framing and lighting are all very considered. Minghella has delivered a sweet, soulful and visually rich debut that will deliver the kind of audio-visual experience that you can only get in cinema. "Teen Spirit" is a big-screen pop-odyssey, a cinematic event that should leave you dancing out of the theater. Each song gets a music video-type treatment which also offers an opportunity to give us backstory and a little character developmen, although this could have been utilized a little more. The musical performances are so creative and entertaining that it makes the weak moments with the characters stand out further. You’re making two or three music-driven films at once; juggling the film itself, the entire music apparatus, and in this case, a dance component, three distinct layers that require their own preparation and execution. It’s a bigger swing, but it’s also much more fun. The film confesses to a fondness for female-driven European synth pop and the vision for bringing it to life is truly unique. It's a very specific balance of naturalism and formalism. People underestimate the power of pop, but the film has an innate understanding of what makes for a timeless, evocative pop anthem.