Director: Max Minghella
Release Date: April 19, 2019
Writer and director Max Minghella makes his debut with the music drama Teen Spirit. First-time directors are always relatively unknown unless you’re Bradley Cooper or Jonah Hill, but you may have seen Minghella in The Social Network as one of Mark Zuckerburg’s Harvard enemies. He’s also the son of the late Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella, who won the award for The English Patient. So while he is a first-time director, he has spent time surrounded by acclaimed filmmakers.
Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s younger sister, stars as Violent, an introverted high school junior from a small town and poverty-stricken household who dreams of a singing career. She spends her nights and weekends helping with the family farm and serving tables part-time to help pay the bills. With what little free time she has, she performs for drunks at a shitty dive bar. When a reality TV show similar to American Idol called Teen Spirit comes to town she takes the opportunity to chase her dream and enter the contest, against her mother’s wishes.
Being a minor, Violent needs a guardian to accompany her to the tryouts for the competition. Since her mother is high strung and unapproving she seeks out the help of one of the local drunks she sings to at the bar. This fat old man pretending to be Violent’s uncle named Vlad just so happens to be a former opera singer. The two make an agreement that Vlad will take her raw talent and shape her into a star and he will be her manager. Vlad offers some rude comic relief to the serious story. He also acts as a stand in father figure and mentor to Violent. His drinking is a liability to her career but he has helped her perfect her craft in a way that no one else had. Their bond isn’t the most convincing one but it is there, even if it’s a little far removed. As Violent rises to fame we wonder if she’s going to stay loyal to Vlad or take a big time record deal with a real music manager.
Teen Spirit follows a wave of music-centered dramas such as Bohemian Rhapsody, Vox Lux, A Star Is Born, and Her Smell. All are different in their own ways but they all share one common theme: The moral conflict of how far someone will go for stardom. What are they willing to do? Stab the day-ones in the back? Sell out and make shit-tier music? Or literally sell their soul to the devil? Teen Spirit is no different, as Minghella balances the pros and cons in a way that has you questioning your own moral compass.
The musical sequences are mesmerizing. Elle Fanning pulls off songs from real life pop stars such as Robyn and Ellie Goulding convincingly enough to make you add her versions to your Spotify playlists. The use of neon-lights, loud pop music and cuts to relevant scenes make for a unique experience as we gather context for each song and what it means to Violent as she is performing.
While Teen Spirit doesn’t do anything particularly groundbreaking, Elle Fanning’s performance and music sequences carry this film from an otherwise uninteresting rags to riches underdog story. Minghella overcomes cliches by investing heavily in the characters and it pays off as Violent becomes our favorite big screen pop star.