It doesn’t take much exposure to TV talent shows to realise that success with the voting audience or expert panel isn’t so much about the performance and talent as about the story the contestant tells. Teen Spirit takes that idea, the story, and turns it into a story of its own.
In what could almost be a series of filmed inserts for a talent show we meet Violet (Elle Fanning), the bilingual daughter of Polish immigrant single mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska). Dad’s gone. Picked on at school. Loves animals. Works hard in a series of dead end jobs. But the girl loves to sing, as we can tell from the glimpse we catch of her putting her heart into a Tegan and Sara song in the almost empty bar where she works.
This last bit isn’t just a vignette, though, it’s the beginning of Violet’s “journey”. The hobo-looking guy who is the only one to applaud her turns out to be a one-time opera singer from Croatia, Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who takes Violet under his wing when she confides in him that she wants to take part in the Teen Spirit competition. All Vlad has to do is convince Violet’s mother Marla that his intentions are honourable. All Marla has to do is tell Vlad definitively, once and for all, that a 50-50 split on any possible future career earnings is absolutely out of the question. Managers get 15%, end of.
This is the directorial debut of Max Minghella, son of Anthony, and he’s really more interested in the “story” than he is in pouring cold water on a staple of shiny-floor TV entertainment. Violet’s slog through initial auditions, proper auditions, qualifying rounds, styled, primped, one hoop after another, is handled in a perfunctory way. He knows we know that Violet is going to sail pretty uneventfully to somewhere near the final, at which point the crunch is going to come. Which is exactly what happens. The TV talent game is tough, it’s glam, it’s fairly dog eat dog, people want to have sex with you all of a sudden, it’s all handled in a brisk and businesslike way.
The focus is on Violet not the paraphernalia, and we root for her as she takes her frail personality onto the stage, overcoming stage fright and general shyness to inch her way to the big prize – a record contract with a big company.
Fanning doesn’t have a big voice but it is a nice voice. She sings in tune. As the film goes on she seems to develop more power. As operatic Vlad teaches Violet one trick or another, a voice coach must have been doing something similar with Fanning. Violet develops a wider range, as the judges have told her to do in her very first audition. We don’t have to believe she is the best in the competition necessarily, since the story is what we’re being sold, not the performance.
We never hear Vlad sing, Zlatko Buric (a Nicolas Winding Refn favourite) not being an opera singer in real life, but even so he feels a bit underused in a drama whose focus is perhaps a bit excessively on Violet. Grochowska, too, feels like a depository of talent it would have been interesting to see more of. However.
We have seen this story before, in the film One Chance, in which James Corden played Paul Potts, the shy nobody who really really wanted to sing. True story.
Minghella’s dad (director of The Talented Mr Ripley and The English Patient) had visual flair and the son seems to have it too. This is in many ways a cautious debut but there is style to spare on display, not least in the broodingly dark shooting style that Minghella and DP Autumn Durald have chosen to illustrate a story that seemed to be crying out for the opposite – the bright lights of TV and music-biz fame and all that.
Minghella also does something interesting with Fanning. Having noticed that there’s often something held back in her performances, he’s somehow managed – team talk, drugs, hypnotism, no idea – to wring a performance out of her that eventually becomes free and uninhibited, as if (nearly) all the inner restraints have been let go.
This isn’t a brilliant film but it is a good one, entertaining, touching, perky and bright. Just what you want from a Saturday night TV show really.
Teen Spirit – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2021