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There’s an American Idol-style singing competition at the heart of Teen Spirit, actor Max Minghella’s directorial debut. Violet Valenski is a Polish 17-year-old living on the Isle of Wight with her single immigrant mother. She goes to school and works the farm, along with a nights-and-weekends bar job. All Violet wants to do is sing, but her stern mom insists the church choir should be enough for her. Violet sneaks out to open mics at miserable, empty watering holes, but her shot at the big time arrives when the reality show comes to town on a casting call, and she easily powers her way through auditions.
But if this were reality, Violet (Elle Fanning) wouldn’t be going to Hollywood. Though Fanning has a terrific voice suited for pop (she sings Robyn and Sigrid better than they do, reportedly untouched), Minghella directs the actress to be dour. Violet is apparently miserable, for reasons not readily known. Is it because her dad left? Because her mother’s strict? Because she feels stuck? We hardly get to know Violet before she starts her journey—all we can see is that girlfriend doesn’t seem to have much fun, ever, even when she nails a song. And this lack of enthusiasm, whether during a performance or a press piece, wouldn’t get her very far in a smiley, puppet-seeking X Factor world.
The gloominess is prevalent throughout Teen Spirit, despite its pop-fueled soundtrack. There’s a murkiness here courtesy of cinematographer Autumn Durald, who dimly lights everyday scenes and backlights musical performances, washing out the singers’ faces. Between Fanning’s somber performance and the film’s look, Minghella (son of the late Anthony) relies on the music to do the heavy lifting, and even songs such as “Dancing on My Own” and “Don’t Kill My Vibe” can’t pull it off.
Minghella also wrote the montage-heavy Cinderella script, whose central relationship isn’t between Violet and a friend (she doesn’t seem to have any close ones) or her mom (Agnieszka Grochowska), but with a sloppy old Croatian drunk named Vlad (Zlatko Buric). Vlad approaches Violet after one of her open mics and slurs an offer for a ride home. Violet wisely chooses the bus—until some apparent troublemakers approach her while she’s waiting. Suddenly Vlad’s skeeviness seems not so bad, and it turns out he comes in handy: When the organizers of Teen Spirit (the show) find out Violet is 17, they tell her that she has to come back with a guardian. So she has Vlad pose as her uncle. In return, he insists that he become her manager, getting 50 percent should she become famous. Though Vlad may seem like a lonely mess of a man, he’s actually a lonely mess of a former opera singer, and he not only “manages” Violet, he coaches her after the show’s judges say that she has raw talent but is very green stage-wise. Unbelievably, Violet’s mother signs off on this.
Teen Spirit hits all the beats you expect it to, resulting in an arc that isn’t terribly suspenseful or thrilling. Fanning’s performance has highs and lows (she speaks Polish ably, but her accent when speaking English is of indeterminate origin), but she’s not to be blamed for what’s simply a dull film. After all, it’s impossible to kill a vibe that’s not there to begin with.
Teen Spirit opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.