Music videos are really the last mainstream outlet for experimental film. It’s almost impossible nowadays to secure widespread distribution for a feature-length fictional film that’s non-narrative. And while some music videos do provide tell a story, more often than not they’re simply chasing an aesthetic or feeling. Symbols, images, figures, and colours flash past without much context or clarity.
With the new musical film Teen Spirit, it almost appears as though director-writer Max Minghella made a series of separate Elle Fanning music videos first, and then attempted to stitch them together with a narrative. The script and characterisation feel like an afterthought here. Music and style was clearly the priority for the filmmaker and, as a result, everything else necessary to make a good movie was largely forgotten.
The story here is a familiar one. A reserved, teenage girl from a small town with a passion and talent for singing finally gets a chance to follow her dream and make it big. In the process, she’s of course tempted and distracted by fame, alcohol, boys, and record labels. In this case, our young songbird Violet (Fanning) is the daughter of a Polish immigrant living on an island in the UK whose family has fallen on hard times financially. She learns of a nation-wide TV singing competition, Teen Spirit, and tries out in hopes of landing a record deal, despite knowing her mother will disapprove. At the bar she regularly sneaks out of her home to perform at, she befriends Vlad (Zlatko Burić), an eccentric, middle-aged drunkard/ex-opera singer who helps guide her through the process.
Sadly all of the characters here though are paper thin, as are their relationships. Little to no depth is provided. The tone in this film should be exciting and energetic, but it’s flat overall. Given the lack of characterisation at play, it’s difficult to care whether she wins or not. The film also attempts to ask the question one would expect in a movie like this: How does fame change you? How do you keep from losing yourself to it? But, unlike in better movies in the same vein, we never know Violet to begin with so it’s impossible to be aware of or concerned by any differences in her as she grows more popular.
Despite these failing though, there really is some magic when Fanning takes centre stage and sings. The film is perpetually leading up to these moments, and frankly, they don’t disappoint, with powerful, distinct visuals accentuating her performances further. Fanning and the musical team here really make these songs her own. They’re keenly aware of her strengths and weaknesses as a singer, and play to the former. Fanning has always impressed as an actress (though there isn’t much of an opportunity for her to do so in this role), but this is a compelling argument for her as a musician. Frustratingly though the music and her performances here aren’t really servicing the film. They don’t provide any insight as to who Violet is as a person or artist, why she wants to sing, or what these specific songs mean to her.
In the end, it’s hard to say what exactly Minghella was attempting to say or do with his film. It really doesn’t appear to have much merit beyond acting as a fun excuse to have Elle Fanning cover some great modern pop tunes. And unfortunately, as nice a prospect as that is, it’s not enough to properly sustain an entire movie. Perhaps Minghella’s talents would be better utilised working as a music video director where he can cast aside plot entirely and throw himself into songs and crafting beautiful visuals to accompany them.
by Jennifer Verzuh
Jennifer Verzuh is a writer who’s spent the past year and a half traveling across the US working at film festivals after graduating college, where she studied literature and film production. Some of her favorite movies are Carol, Ida, Jackie & Nashville. You can follow her on Twitter at @20thcenturywmn or letterboxd.