Elle Fanning Comes Alive in Max Minghella’s Sly “Teen Spirit”
Elle Fanning’s film career started when she was just shy of three years old and played the younger version of her sister Dakota’s character in 2001’s I Am Sam. Since then, she’s starred in many films including Super 8, Somewhere, The Neon Demon, and Mary Shelley. In most of her vehicles, she’s played very serious, almost humorless, young women.
At the start of Teen Spirit, she’s playing another moody teen, this time a British girl wasting away in an English burg who dreams of becoming a singer. But then, when her character Violet starts to sing at a local bar’s open mic, the character comes alive. Fanning does too, vividly, as does her singing – and she’s terrific. It’s one of the pleasant surprises in Max Minghella’s modest new film (his directorial debut), and so is the way the filmmaker turns it all into a sly riff on fame.
Minghella wrote the screenplay as well, and you can tell it’s penned by an accomplished actor. He creates all sorts of specific details for each part, the kind that actors add when developing their character. Violet wears little makeup and fancies sports warm-ups to downplay her looks. She doesn’t feel like a star in her own life, and Minghella ensures that we know that from the way she dresses. He directs Fanning to look down at the ground a lot too as if she’s too embarrassed to face the world or perhaps feels tethered to the dull town under her feet.
Minghella’s casting informs his characters too. Agnieszka Grochowska plays Violet’s intense mother Marla, yet she hardly fits the cliched perception of an unkempt farmer’s wife. Instead, she stands tall, is fit and proud, suggesting that while this woman, barely in her 40’s, has known plenty of heartaches since her husband walked out on her, she’s not going down without a fight. The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree either as evidenced by Violet’s willfulness in finding ways to sneak out on her mom. She does so to meet up with friends, as well as audition for the British singing competition on TV called Teen Spirit (A sly riff on shows like American Idol or Britain’s Got Talent,)
Violet lives for music, rocking out in her bedroom to all kinds, and her iPod accompanies her when she’s doing chores or riding her beloved white horse. And when she gets the chance during those open mics, she is electric.
That zeal, as well as her talent, isn’t lost upon local customer Vlad (Zlatko Buric). He’s a once-famous opera singer now gone to seed, lost in ill-fitting clothes and a hangdog expression, who sees in Violet a potential meal ticket and a return to the limelight. She, in return, sees the potential seasoned manager in joining forces with someone like him, and subconsciously, a father figure as well.
Together, they prepare for the Teen Spirit audition process that will take Violet from her small town to London. It’s a rags to riches story, full of expected beats, but Minghella and his cast continuously find ways to make them feel fresher.
For starters, Violet is good, not great. She’s got raw talent, but she’s far from a fully-formed Christina Aguilera or Kelly Clarkson. When she’s practicing dance moves, or even when she’s performing later in the story on the show, Minghella makes sure that we see that she’s a little clunky handling the choreography. And when Jules (Rebecca Hall) enters the picture as a savvy big-time manager to spell out Violet’s shortcomings, her critique rings true. Violet needs work, but the potential is there.
Another fresh beat in the storytelling is how Jules isn’t an easy villain. In fact, she’s far from it. She has style and empathy, even when she’s telling Violet like it is and what will come from signing a contract with her, but it’s no devil’s bargain. Jules is smart and caring and wants her clients to be as honest with her as she is with them. It’s a nice part of Violet’s maturing in the story too that she sees Jules clearly and doesn’t act like she’s a wicked stepmother.
Other fresh variations continue, particularly in regards to the redemptive road for Vlad. Buric doesn’t chew the scenery and isn’t even given one, big showy scene. And some of his backstory is left for us to fill in. Minghella lets us know that Vlad has an estranged adult daughter but he slyly leaves the reasons why private within the old man. The first-time filmmaker has made an insinuating drama, not a strident melodrama.
Even when Minghella makes fun of reality television, he does so in a delicate way. As a performer himself, Minghella tends to regard show biz with more sympathy than hostility. That’s evident in the last act when the story showcases Violet’s week prepping for the Teen Spirit show.
The other acts vying for the crown may have silly names like Urban Karma and Angel X, but Minghella never ridicules them. Even Kayan Spears (Ruairi O’Connor), a Teen Spirit star whose most prominent character trait is his libido, isn’t quite the cartoon villain that the young man could’ve been. He may try to ply Violet with shots in efforts to bed her, but Minghella wisely never lets this Justin Bieber wannabe become wholly hiss-worthy.
Through it all, Minghella believes in Violet, as does Fanning. They both give her character their all, keeping a tight focus on her ups and downs along her journey. It’s a tidy little character study that suggests fame and fortune require talent, but mostly, the right people to hold the doors open and a generous amount of luck. It’s a shrewd lesson for anyone attempting to enter show biz, and both Minghella and Fanning give it their best shot here, clearly thankful for the opportunity.
Check out the trailer of Teen Spirit below:
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