You put your earbuds in, and the world melts away. The other commuters on the train, the other people in line at the post office — everything else just dissolves and the song takes over, until it feels like it’s a part of yourself and always was.
Above all, Max Minghella’s earnest “Teen Spirit” captures that deep, almost primal relationship people can have with songs. It’s a love story. Not between two people, but between a teenage girl and her music.
Violet (Elle Fanning) is a quiet, serious-minded teenager living on the Isle of Wight, an island off the coast of England. A Polish immigrant, Violet is a bit of an outcast among the other teenagers in her community, which she doesn’t seem to mind too much. Whether she’s doing chores on the family farm or walking the halls at school, she lives inside her head, perpetually plugged in to her iPod.
She’s also a fine singer, so when she hears about auditions for an “American Idol”-like reality competition show called “Teen Spirit,” she decides to try out. She’s a green and awkward performer on stage, but in her early auditions she loses herself in the songs in ways other, more ambitious contestants don't.
Minghella, an actor (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”) making his debut as a filmmaker, beautifully visualizes this connection in one scene. As Violet sings Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” (Fanning uses her real singing voice), the screen shifts to scenes from her life — dancing alone in her room, taking care of her beloved horse, performing to disinterested locals at the local karaoke bar. It’s like the song is the through line connecting different pieces of Violet together and giving her life meaning. It’s a stunning sequence.
Violet’s talent is noticed by one local, a grizzled alcoholic named Vlad (Zlatko Buric). It turns out that in another life Vlad was a renowned opera singer, and he agrees to coach Violet through the rounds of “Teen Spirit.” The two characters couldn’t be more different, yet the bond they share over music is palpable and rather lovely.
As Violet rises higher and higher in the ranks of the competition, “Teen Spirit” embraces the clichés of the genre with both arms. We know Violet will face setbacks along the way and overcome them. We know she’ll be tempted to compromise her vision, in this case by a Mephistophelian record producer (Rebecca Hall).
But “Teen Spirit” succeeds anyway, thanks to Mingella’s fresh and sincere approach to familiar material, and especially to Fanning. She displays a fierceness and conviction in every frame of the movie, and we believe her as the tentative farm girl she is in the beginning, and the confident pop star she becomes.
The film takes pop music seriously, with an impeccable soundtrack and energetic choreography. For those who think pop music is just plastic and disposable, “Teen Spirit” is a stylish and deeply felt corrective.