So, I openly acknowledge that Max Minghella’s Teen Spirit isn’t a terribly great film. It’s sloppy, embarrassingly indulgent, and operates more like a music video than a feature film. And for those reasons I, irrationally, really enjoyed it. A movie like this, one that ostentatiously flaunts its sentimentality, rarely work for me in part because they tend to ascribe numerous formulaic devices to see their narrative arc through. Teen Spirit possesses all the banal narrative traits you’d expect from a film like this yet is realized through a funnel of montage sequences set to pop songs by Katy Perry, Robyn, Ellie Goulding, and early No Doubt. Your mileage will clearly vary depending on your appreciation for those artists, but for me they made Minghella’s numerous platitudinous plunges significantly easier to accept.
Teen Spirit’s title refers to an English singing competition that could be accurately described as American Idol if Nicolas Winding Refn functioned as a creative consultant. With the competition accepting auditions on the Isle of Wight, Polish-born Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), who is first seen singing in front of an empty bar that she tends, considers it her opportunity to finally make it. The 17-year old manages to move onto the second stage of auditions, but requires a guardian to come along with her. In one of those details that only someone growing up in a Polish household would ever understand, she seeks out the help of a rando from the bar; a furry, rotund visage of a man named Vlad (Zlatko Buric, a NWR regular from the Pusher trilogy). In one of those impossible, unarrangable moments, Vlad used to be an opera singer and ends up being an ideal manager for Violet as she prepares for the competition.
Minghella’s script is bare-bones, weighed down by dead-end details that go nowhere. The romantic entanglements that Violet finds herself in are so broad and innocuous that it leaves you a little embarrassed when they all wrap up in a tidy fashion. And while Buric gives a notable performance, his role as Violet’s surrogate father is a perpetual source of cringe. But what makes Teen Spirit so persuasive is how Minghella harnesses Fanning’s energy throughout the film’s copious montage sequences. From Fanning’s rendition of Robyn’s Dancing on My Own to a seizure-inducing (in a good way?) cover of Ellie Goulding’s Lights, Minghella simply indulges in everything that this generation of pop music is all about. Whereas something like Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux considers pop music within a spectrum of Western decline, Minghella’s film doesn’t forecast imminent doom, but caters to an Instagram generation that simply wants to have a good time. Well, perhaps the two films are a little more similar than I initially thought.