In terms of plot, there’s nothing particularly original or fresh about ‘Teen Spirit.’ It’s the story of a small town provincial girl whose life is stuck in a rut and whose only escape is singing. When a popular teen pop singing competition holds tryouts for the first time in her quiet and sleepy town, she finally has a chance of getting out of the humdrum of her life.
What makes ‘Teen Spirit’ so special is the craftsmanship of director and writer Max Minghella in disguising this dark coming-of-age story as a gritty contemporary jukebox musical that manages to dig deep into the escapist magic of pop music. The movie ‘Flashdance’ served as an obvious inspiration that they even used its theme at some point in the movie to underscore lead character Violet’s chance of getting out of the dreariness of her life.
Violet, played by Elle Fanning, is one unhappy teenager. She’s made fun of by the “cool” girls at school while she works at her single mom’s farm and works as a waitress during the weekends. There is a heaviness in Elle Fanning’s posture, demeanor, and countenance that betrays her longing for something more. Her only moments of bliss are when she is in the countryside with her horse, listening to pop music on her iPod or when she sidelines singing at a local bar against her religious mom’s wishes.
Within the first ten minutes of the film, we are introduced to a very different kind of teenager. Director Max Minghella takes us through her day-to-day in almost-music video montages of a youth that has been taken away by reality, that when Violet catches an advertisement that the London-based television singing competition Teen Spirit would be calling for auditions in her home at the Isle of Wight, we understand immediately the impetus she takes to join.
With the help of her only fan — an older man who used to be an opera singer named Vlad — she makes it through the first two stages of the audition and finds herself changing as her world gets bigger and bigger.
Minghella manages to turn every montage and every performance into a musical number as the song choices for each scene underscores Violet’s inner world. ‘Teen Spirit,’ as much as it is a coming-of-age drama, is also a musical, where each song number gives us a peek into Violet’s mind as much as it serves as turning points in her growth as a person on the precipice of getting out of her humdrum life.
In essence, ‘Teen Spirit’ serves as an answer to the question about pop music’s value in this world. If anything, the film highlights pop music’s ability to liberate the listener from the ordinariness of life. It’s the music of the youth dreaming and hoping for a better world. In this sense, it takes a tangential form: a singing competition that could spell a life for Violet that is away from her mother’s sadness, from poverty, from being made fun of by the cool girls in school. Every time she sings, dances in her room, listening to music in the field with no one around, she feels the possibility of it all.
This is the magic of Elle Fanning’s pivotal performance. Gone is her light and etherealness from ‘Maleficent’ or the femme fatale ingenue in ‘The Beguiled.’ Here, she is downtrodden and stepped on by life. It's the antithesis of a pop star, but what Minghella allows us to see is how much she wants this and how much of it is in her.
Elle Fanning’s Violet is not your typical idea for a teen pop star, but she’s a representation of today’s teens who run on pop music as fuel. Add to that a strong supporting cast and such dazzling direction, and ‘Teen Spirit’ manages to make this all-too-familiar narrative seem fresh and new.