Is Teen Spirit a legitimate feature film? Or is it 92 minutes of glistening YouTube content masquerading as one?
If ever there was a movie that asked to be played on shuffle, it’s this milquetoast product predictably charting the stumbles and triumphs of the Darwinian world of competition television. It’s presented as a celebration of the hollow, plastic style of pop music that the latest A Star Is Born so adeptly critiqued.
Elle Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a 17-year-old striver from a Polish family, raised by a dogmatic single mother on the remote Isle of Wight. She escapes her mundane existence of church choirs and cow milking by singing Top 40 chestnuts at open-mic nights at a comatose dive bar. When she learns that Teen Spirit — a spangled star search in the mold of a Eurovision or American Idol — is auditioning aspirants from the Isle of Wight, she clandestinely attends, bringing as her guardian an unlikely fan of her open-mic sets: Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a rumpled former opera singer with a drinking problem.
We initially suspect Vlad to be a creeper with more than just a professional interest in the budding ingénue, but we soon realize this isn’t that kind of movie. That would make for a dangerous and uncomfortable viewing, two emotions that Teen Spirit staunchly resists. Its tropes are that of the wearisome, wholesome buddy film, with both parties growing and evolving from their unusual friendship, a conceit that’s as bland and colorless as it reads.
I’d be more likely to buy this relationship if the rest of the film seemed rooted in a familiar reality, but it’s all an unconvincing simulacrum. Violet’s audition, on a stage in a cavernous, poorly lit theater with judges lurking in a shadowy yonder, is ludicrously ominous. She sings Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” but writer-director Max Minghella cuts up the performance in a music-video-style montage.
By splicing in echoes of her rural home life and formative memories, Minghella underlines the moment with superfluous sentiment. Does he not trust the austere vulnerability of the moment, and Fanning’s portrayal of it? Or does he not believe his perpetually distracted Gen-Z viewership can handle an unadulterated performance?
Either way, it’s symptomatic of the film’s broader problem, its tendency toward oversaturation. Minghella is such a restless formalist that his film never finds its groove — never settles into the pocket, in music-competition verbiage. When it does quiet down into intimate dialogues, it feels lethargic; Teen Spirit oscillates between overcaffeinated and sluggish, unable to find a natural Goldilocks zone in the middle.
Mingella’s script is as flawed as the direction. His story is telegraphed to the point of collective millennial myth, Joseph Campbell in the age of strobe lights and Auto-Tune: Proactive but naïve talent rises from obscurity toward sudden, stratospheric adulation, abandoning her roots by engaging in standard-issue debauchery and vice, and only succeeds after learning to avoid temptation (Rebecca Hall is the Luciferian host of the show within the movie, offering untold riches if Violet plays the game her way) and be true to herself. Vox Lux went through the same yawning motions too, but at least it seemed to appreciate the caustic toll at the other end of the pop rainbow.
Cynicism is not permitted to infringe on this manufactured spectacle, which for all its shiny surfaces and epileptic energy is perhaps is most ostentatious waste of time and resources so far this year. When all is said and sung, Teen Spirit is little more than an advertisement for its soundtrack.
TEEN SPIRIT. Director: Max Minghella; Cast: Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska; Distributor: Bleecker Street; Opens: Friday, April 19 at AMC Pompano Beach 18, AMC Aventura 24, Cinepolis Grove 15, AMC Sunset Place 24 and The Landmark at Merrick Park 7