Reading a plot synopsis for a movie can frequently be misleading. A few sentences, or even a paragraph or two, cannot always get across the subtleties of the character interactions or the unique spin offered by the writer, director, and cast. With that in mind, Max Minghella’s directorial debut, Teen Spirit, sports a plot that doesn’t seem to be anything new. In its broadest strokes, the film is a familiar underdog tale featuring the seemingly mismatched mentor and mentee dynamic.
Violet (Elle Fanning) lives on a farm in the Isle of Wight in the United Kingdom. Violet loves music and singing, something her mom (Agnieszka Grochowska) believes is just a distraction from school and work. A few days a week, Violet will leave her waitress job early to sing at a local bar.
It is at this pub that former opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric) hears the young lady sing. Shortly after the two meet, the singing competition Teen Spirit comes to the island, and it seems everyone at school is going to audition. This includes Violet, who gets to the next section of the contest but is told she needs to polish parts of her performance. She goes to Vlad and asks for his help. He agrees as he sees great potential in Violet. Is Violet good enough to make it all the way through to the grand finale? Can she win?
“…about two souls, one older, one younger, who both feel trapped in their lives for various reasons.”
Movies about competitions like this have a tendency to focus on the music, or the dancing, or what have you. The filmmakers get so wrapped up in that aspect that the fact that movies are a visual storytelling medium gets pushed to the side. Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit delivers a kinetic, sensory overload in the best way. Along with the Autumn Durald, who is the director of photography, they have created a living, moving painting. From the way, the sunlight cuts across the open field Violet rides her horse through, to the vivid, pulsating lights during the singing competition, even down to the hazy, soft, backlights of the bar Violet sings in, every frame is a piece of art. Every moment of the film is beautifully mounted and visually awe-inspiring.
Crucial to the movie’s success is Cam McLauchlin’s skillful editing. The film fascinatingly plays with chronology, circling back around to scenes during musical performances, to give the audience a great understanding of what the leads are feeling during that moment. The audience discovers that as a little girl, Violet caught her mom cheating on her dad. This is a starkly dramatic scene, one that furthers the two’s relationship immensely, and it comes in part of a beautiful audition montage. There is no dialogue, just the visuals and soundtrack to carry the audience through the inner turmoil and ultimate strength Violet found due to this moment.
The most purely fun part of the movie is set to No Doubt’s Just A Girl as Violet dances her heart in the middle of the room. Her frustrations with work, school, and her mom are vented in this wild burst of energy, and the audience is given keen insight into her wants, desires, and dreams during this. Again, without dialogue; just the visuals, the style of editing, and kickass soundtrack.
All those moments described above, discovering the source of tension between Violet and her mom, finding out about Vlad’s life as an opera singer, and their central relationship is conveyed in a relatable way. This is because Minghella’s writing skills are just as strong as his directing capabilities. There are some cliches such as Violet initially not winning the second stage of the competition, but the first pick gets disqualified. However, there are just as many cliches that are avoided.
“…delivers a kinetic, sensory overload in the best way.”
To be allowed to continue in Teen Spirit, Violet, who is 17-years old, needs a guardian or parent’s permission. Her mom would never agree to such a thing, so she gets Vlad to agree to pretend to be her uncle. In a more stereotypical story, there would be a dramatic moment where the people who run the contest confront her with the truth, and she almost gets kicked out. Thankfully, Teen Spirit, the movie has no time for such manufactured moments. It is about two souls, one older, one younger, who both feel trapped in their lives for various reasons. There are plenty of authentic, character-driven stories to follow there, that piling on useless side plots would only serve as a distraction.
Elle Fanning has never been more luminous than as Violet. Seamlessly switching from English to Polish to singing, sometimes all within one sequence, she brings the character’s flaws and strengths to vivid life. Her singing voice is remarkable, and she nails every song. The ending number, in particular, is going to bringing down the house of the theaters showing the movie. Zlatko Buric, as the headstrong Vlad, is also astounding. From the Pusher trilogy to the underrated gem Dirty Pretty Things, Buric has also been a reliable screen presence. Here, in his most substantial role for mainstream audiences, he gets to show a range that his smaller parts didn’t bring forth.
The rest of the cast is also quite good. As the winner of last year’s Teen Spirit Ruairi O’Connor is confident and cocky in a relatable, and slightly annoying way. Grochowska is great as Violet’s mom. Violet comes home late one night and sees a man walking her horse down the driveway. She freaks out and runs to her mom in the kitchen. The camera looks on in from the outside, and the physical gestures of Grochowska during this sells both the necessity of the sale and the heartbreak it caused. It is a powerful moment that says a lot about both she and Violet; and both actresses nail it perfectly.
Teen Spirit tells an old tale, but Max Minghella’s incredible directorial debut is a technicolor, neon-drenched fever dream. It is told with remarkable visual prowess, jaw-dropping editing, a soundtrack to die for, career-best performances from its central cast, and most importantly, heart. This is not to be missed.
Teen Spirit (2019) Directed by Max Minghella. Written by Max Minghella. Starring Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Agnieszka Grochowska, Ruairi O’Connor, Rebecca Hall. Teen Spirit screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
10 out of 10 Neon Lights