What is the power of pop? It's the question pondered in Max Minghella's directorial debut, "Teen Spirit." Not to spoil the ending, but it's obvious that Minghella deeply loves and respects the emotional clout of a good pop song, and the role it plays in life: as a symbol, an anthem, a glimmer of hope.
He also has impeccable taste in pop.
Music is a lifeline for Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning), a Polish-born British teen living on the Isle of Wight. At 17, her life is dreary: school, waitressing at a billiards hall, tending to the family farm. Alone with her iPod, she snatches scraps of freedom and joy, dancing in her room or lingering in a field of lavender.
One night, singing for a room full of drunks at a pub, she catches the ear of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up Croatian opera singer. The unlikely friendship comes in handy when Violet secretly auditions for a singing competition show called "Teen Spirit." When she advances to the next round, she brings Vlad as a guardian in lieu of her stern mother (Agnieszka Grochowska). Soon Vlad is her manager/mentor. As Fanning (who does all her own singing) is belting out Robyn's "Dancing on My Own" during her audition, Minghella uses a series of flashbacks to illustrate that "Dancing on My Own" isn't just a song for Violet — it's her whole life.
"Teen Spirit" is mythic in its themes but exquisitely economic in its storytelling. We know intimately who Violet is even before the title card pops up. This is a tale we know, the classic rise and fall and rise of a musician. It doesn't try to be epic, to explain or comment — it's just a snapshot of a glimpse of stardom for a kid who finds her salvation in music.
Pop connotes a bright shiny garishness, but Minghella (best known as an actor for TV's "The Handmaid Tale" and "The Mindy Project") utilizes a studiously lo-fi and grungy aesthetic. The film is shot almost entirely with natural light, many scenes backlit, obscuring faces and their intentions. The hallucinatory light shows are dazzling. More than anything else, the aesthetic choices underscore the immediate emotional component, whether nostalgic, euphoric or despairing.
Violet's status as an immigrant subtly introduces the element of political comment. It's made apparent to Violet when a "Teen Spirit" judge (Rebecca Hall) reminds her: "You're an inexperienced performer, with a Polish name, entering a competition that relies on the public vote."
"Teen Spirit" is a myth about the dream of stardom, of being plucked from obscurity and discovered for pure talent, held up as a symbol of national pride. Minghella doesn't break the mold when it comes to the story, but if his film argues anything, it's that the dream should be available to anyone.