It’s a tale as old as time. Undiscovered, talented waif yearns to escape her dull and dreary life and sing for the masses. In Teen Spirit, Elle Fanning plays Violet, a 17-year-old eking out a life on the Isle of Wight with her single mother.
We see Violet hard at work — at school, waiting tables at the pub, tending to the animals on their small hobby farm — and occasionally getting away to lose herself in music, whether it’s listening to her iPod in a field of lavender, singing for a disinterested audience at the pub, or just rocking out in her tiny room. It’s abundantly clear that Violet is dying of boredom. Fanning’s waif-like face perfectly expresses Violet’s exhaustion and numbness.
In fact, that’s about all we see. We’re meant to believe that music is Violet’s solace, but we don’t see her expressing any joy or even enthusiasm over it. During her one signing gig at a dimly lit bar, she sways back and forth as she warbles, almost daring the audience to feel anything but lack of interest.
Luckily for Violet, someone does take an interest: Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a Croatian former opera singer, hears her sing and offers to coach her. She demurs at first, but later seeks him out when she decides to enter the Teen Spirit UK singing competition and discovers she needs to bring an adult guardian.
With Vlad’s coaching, Violet’s singing improves enough for her to move forward in the competition. More than that, we finally see her start to open up, to smile and laugh, and reach out to connect with classmates and make friends.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cinderella story of fame if there weren’t also temptation. The more famous Violet gets, the more she’s exposed to a world where she’s ripe for exploitation — by record companies, by more worldly fellow contestants – and she must navigate those temptations while deciding what she wants, who she wants to be, and what she wants to hold onto from her old life.
This of course creates tension and discord, within Violet and between her and her allies – Vlad, and her backing band. As a viewer, you can feel the energy coiling up, until everything finally comes out in Violet’s final performance in the competition; then we at last see what’s been held back for so long throughout the rest of the film, as Fanning makes Violet’s swan song an explosion of anger and joy.
It’s a lovely film, beautifully photographed with direction by Max Minghella. As seedy as some parts of Violet’s life on the Isle of Wight are, there are also moments of sublime natural beauty; this is juxtaposed with the onstage glamour of the Teen Spirit competition, itself in opposition to the offstage banality of life behind-the-scenes.
The film is short and spare; it helps that so much of this type of story exists in the cultural consciousness, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps of understanding when there’s no dialogue. It’s not overdone, and feels natural. The quietness of the first two-thirds can feel slow, but if you let it build, the movie’s climax will leave you breathless.