“TEEN SPIRIT” ★ ★ ★ With Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Agnieszka Grochowska and Archie Madekwe. Rated PG-13
What is the power of pop? It’s a question indie filmmakers have pondered of late, in Brady Corbet’s portentous “Vox Lux,” and now, Max Minghella’s directorial debut, “Teen Spirit,” starring Elle Fanning.
But where Corbet’s take on pop was frustratingly ambivalent, it’s obvious Minghella deeply loves and respects the emotional clout of a good pop song, and the role it plays in life — as a symbol, an anthem, a glimmer of hope. He also has impeccable taste in pop.
Music is a lifeline for Violet Valenski (Fanning), a Polish-born British teen living on the Isle of Wight. At 17, her life is dreary: school, waitressing at a billiards hall, tending to the family farm. Alone with her iPod, she snatches scraps of freedom and joy, dancing alone in her room or lingering in a field of lavender. One night, singing for a room full of drunks at a pub, she catches the ear of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up Croatian opera singer.
The unlikely friendship comes in handy when Violet secretly auditions for a singing competition show called “Teen Spirit.” When she advances to the next round, she brings Vlad as a guardian in lieu of her stern mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). Soon Vlad is her manager/mentor.
Fanning does all her own singing, including belting out Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” during her character’s audition. Minghella, along with editor Cam McLaughlin, employs a series of flashbacks to illustrate that this song isn’t just a song for Violet; it’s her whole life. After the moving, dizzying montage, there’s a rude irony to the way the judges flatly offer muted feedback to Violet.
“Teen Spirit” is mythic in its themes but exquisitely economic in its storytelling. We know intimately who Violet is even before the title card pops up. This is a tale we know — the classic rise and fall and rise of a musician; it’s “A Star Is Born” rendered over the course of a few weeks. It doesn’t try to be epic, to explain or comment. It’s just a snapshot of a glimpse of stardom for a kid who finds her salvation in music.
Pop connotes a bright shiny garishness, but Minghella utilizes a studiously lo-fi and grungy aesthetic. Cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw shoots the film almost entirely with natural light, many scenes backlit, obscuring faces and their intentions.
Minghella and Arkapaw opt for explosions of neon pinks sparingly, but the hallucinatory light shows are dazzling. More than anything else, the aesthetic choices always underscore the immediate emotional component, whether nostalgic, euphoric or despairing.
One can’t help but think of the political turmoil in Britain when we see Violet’s roots as she speaks Polish with her mother, the two of them living a meager existence on tips in a desperate attempt to hold on to their home. Her status as an immigrant subtly introduces the element of political comment, but it’s also made apparent to Violet when “Teen Spirit” judge Jules (Rebecca Hall) reminds her: “You’re an inexperienced performer, with a Polish name, entering a competition that relies on the public vote.”
“Teen Spirit” is a myth about the dream of stardom, of being plucked from obscurity and discovered for pure talent, held up as a symbol of national pride.
Minghella doesn’t break the mold when it comes to the story, but if his film argues anything, it’s that the dream should be available to anyone.