If you’ve ever wanted to watch three or four music videos in a row that are spread out with mediocre character development and story threads that don’t go anywhere, then Teen Spirit (2018) is the movie for you. Luckily for first time director Max Minghella – you may know him as an actor from The Social Network (2010) or the Ides of March (2011) – that the star of the movie was up to the challenge of making a 2-dimensional character (written by him) feel like much more.
Stunning musical performances and Fanning’s performance save Teen Spirit
Violet (Elle Fanning) is 17-years-old and is obsessed with singing, but her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) isn’t okay with this ambition, and wants Violet to concern herself with helping pay the bills. Violet meets Vlad (Zlatko Buric) at a bar after she sings, and he offers to give her a ride home. When an opportunity arises for Violet to compete in Teen Spirit, Vlad volunteers to mentor her and help her prepare to move to the next phase of the competition and her dream.
The real highlight of Teen Spirit is absolutely how Minghella chose to shoot the performances. Each song gets a music video-type treatment which also offers an opportunity to give us backstory and a little character development…although this could have been utilized a little more. When Violet sings, we go into her head and see the performance she imagines she is giving with outstanding lighting, while cutting to supporting singers or dancers and revealing narrative information related to the song or her. They are all stunning, and feature interesting lighting and costumes. If the movie had a few more of these, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the film’s weakness.
Minghella doesn’t do a great job of really developing any of the characters. At its 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 is sincere. The chemistry between Vlad and Violet is undeniable – but this is a result of the cast, and not the writing. 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 are always kept at an extreme distance.
Teen Spirit wasn’t a bad film, and for the most part, I truly enjoyed it. The downside is that the musical performances were so creative and entertaining that it made the weak moments with the characters stand out further. I feel that this film could have been amazing, and I wonder if there is a longer cut that fixes many of those character issues. For now, as Teen Spirit is being present it earns the Decent Watch rating.