Written and Directed by Max Minghella
Starring Elle Fanning, Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Buric
Recently, a colleague posted a comment about how the style of movies changed in the 1970’s. The western was popular and started to fade away. The comment asked if there were any westerns made after the 1970’s that really struck a chord.
What amazed me about the commentary was that it missed the growth of the underdog story: characters who started on the down and out and rose to the challenge by the end of a 90-minute arc. Sure, “Rocky” is probably the best example of this, but comedies in the 1970’s and the 1980’s really focused on the underdog.
Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit” is a call back to the types of comedies that I grew up with; the story is very obviously a call back to the reality TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” The Voice,” or “American Idol.”
Elle Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a shy teenager living in a small European town has a voice and the flair to entertain. She and her mom are on hard times though and are barely scraping by. On a chance encounter, she interviews for the British sensation, ‘Teen Spirit’
Minghella’s script downplays the interview, setting us up for the inevitable. Though that aspect of the story could possibly be seen as a cop out, it actually plays to Fanning’s strengths as an actress because it gives her character a chance to grow with a down-and-out opera singer, Vlad (Zlatko Buric) who offers, drunkenly, to be her coach.
Violet is eventually invited to perform in front of a live audience in London where the pressure of all the intricacies involved in finding new talent catches up with her. It is here that she meets the last season’s winner, Keyan Spears (Ruairi O’Connor) and the record label’s manager, Jules, played by Rebecca Hal. Her intensity makes her a natural foil for Violet as she is cornered in to signing with a label. Interestingly, Violet’s own trappings come into focus as she is forced to make a decision, while squaring off with Vlad, whom Violet discovers is more than he seems. Her shyness melts away in the second act as the excitement of being in the moment catches up with her.
We are only four months into 2019 and this is the second film to feature an underdog theme; the first being Stephen Marchant’s “Fighting with My Family.” Both films feature female leads, something that was sorely lacking from the majority of the underdog stories I enjoyed as a kid. Both use humor to convey and mask their dramas, but the predictability of Minghella’s story is where “Fighting with My Family” edges out “Teen Spirit.”
That’s not to say that “Teen Spirit” doesn’t have its own heart. Everything builds up to ‘the’ moment, becoming more and more predictable. Minghella’s intentional focus on the essence of living in the moment eventually pays off bringing Violet’s journey to a satisfying conclusion.
Directing your first film can be daunting enough. Directing your own script can be downright scary. Max Minghella delivers just enough to make Violet’s journey relatable, but makes us wait just a bit too long for the ultimately satisfying payoff.
Full of glitz and glam, “Teen Spirit” will appeal to anyone who has a dream and the fortitude to follow it.
2 out of 4