Film Review: Elle Fanning’s Pop Dreams Come True In ‘Teen Spirit’

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From Rocky to Cool Runnings, cinema is rife with feel-good tales of underdogs defying the odds. The latest addition to the genre is Teen Spirit. Only instead of duking it out in a boxing ring or pummeling down an icy bobsled track, the heroine of this film takes on a very different challenge. Namely, the ruthless world of TV talent shows. Max Minghella’s first feature is a gritty fairytale with a fully fleshed, admirably imperfect protagonist. It also boasts one hell of a soundtrack.

We’re introduced to Violet, a luminous Elle Fanning, as she trudges through the humdrum of small-town life on the Isle Of Wight. The teenager is all-but invisible at school, and spends most of her free-time working at a grim bowling alley to support her single mom. Her one passion is pop music. And she latches on to a rare opportunity to pursue it when a talent show (think X Factor) comes to town for auditions. There’s a catch, however. Her strict, Polish mother doesn’t approve.

To circumvent that hurdle, Violet ropes in the local drunk/ex-opera singer Vlad (a scene-stealing Zlatko Buric) to be her mentor and chaperone. With his help, she gets through the first round of auditions with a cute rendition of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” and then belts out Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” for a chance to make the televised finals. As with any Cinderella story, there are a few hiccups along the way and a couple of unavoidable clichés. Admirably, Minghella keeps them to a minimum by focusing on Violet’s growing friendship with Vlad and her struggle with self-doubt.

This kind of movie is only as good as its heroine, and Elle Fanning brings Violet to life with an immaculate British accent and palpable humanity. She’s brave enough to make the character occasionally unlikeable, realizing that Violet’s fleeting petulance and ingratitude is what makes her believable. Fanning also proves surprisingly adept at pop. She tears through an immaculately curated soundtrack that includes cover versions of Annie Lennox’s “Little Bird,” Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

The film’s major drawback is the sheer familiarity of the talent show process. We see a different Violet on our TV screens every week, which sometimes makes Teen Spirit feel like (an unusually) compelling episode of American Idol with fancy accents. The ending is also strangely anti-climactic, but, by then, you’re too invested in Violet to care. Teen Spirit is in limited theaters from April 12 with a wide release to follow on April 19. The excellent soundtrack is available via Interscope Records now.

Rating: 3/5

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