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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit, the directing debut of actor Max Minghella, follows a very familiar story path, with absolutely no deviations.  It's yet another one of those movies where you could conceivably walk out of the theater, do something else for a half hour or so, and then walk back in, and probably be able to figure out everything that has happened while you were out.  What the film lacks in creativity, however, it makes up in the fact that we find ourselves genuinely caring about the main characters.  Minghella clearly loves the people in his story, and he makes sure that we do also.

With this film (which Minghella also wrote the screenplay), he basically uses the template for your standard underdog story.  In this case, the person we want to see rise above it all is Violet (Elle Fanning), a sensitive and somewhat shy British teenager living in a small island village with her Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska).  She does chores around the family farm, and sings at the local church choir, but her real dream is to be a pop star one day.  As is often the case in these movies, mom doesn't understand her dreams, so Violet has to frequently sneak out to sing at a local bar when she can.  She begins hearing about how a TV singing competition show called Teen Spirit is going to be holding auditions.  She wants to try out, but she's only 17, and needs an adult guardian to accompany her.  And since her mom would never allow it, she turns to an unlikely friend who supports her dream.

This would be Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an alcoholic old man who used to be a great opera singer in his younger years.  In appearance, he kind of resembles a slovenly and disheveled Albert Einstein.  They meet one night when Vlad hears Violet perform at the bar, and they strike up a friendship.  He agrees to clean up his act, become her manager, and help her with her singing so that she can impress the judges, and make it to the final competition in London.  There are the usual hurdles on the road to victory for our young dreamer, including bullies who will tease her for following her fantasy, the disapproving parent, and other people who probably don't have Violet's best interest in mind, and try to steer her off her path.  But, we kind of know right from the start that it will all be alright.  If you've set foot in a movie theater the past 40 years, you definitely will.

Even so, judged by the standards of your average underdog movie, Teen Spirit is pretty laid back.  There's not really a villain here who is trying to completely stop Violet from getting what she wants.  All of the hurdles I mentioned above are pretty much pit stops in the script, rather than a genuine threat toward the young heroine's dream.  What got me invested in the story is the sweet relationship that is built between Violet and Vlad.  They make up the heart of the film, and it was enough to carry me through.  Fanning and Buric create a likable chemistry together, and are also giving fine individual performances.  Another key feature that the movie gets right is the singing.  Elle Fanning had to perform all of her own music in the film, and while she doesn't have a standout voice, she is still great, and handles the large number of songs the film throws at her quite well.  The important thing is that we believe she could make it as far as she does on the singing competition.

Would it have been nice if this movie had been a bit more ambitious, and not so formulaic?  Absolutely.  Still, I am a firm believer in that a movie doesn't have to be wholly original in order to be good.  All it has to do is make us care about its characters and be invested in them, and that's exactly what Minghella has done.  Even if I knew where it was going every step of the way, I still found myself wanting to see Violet succeed, and caring about her friendship with Vlad whenever it became threatened.  This is one of those films that won't blow anyone away, and I highly doubt anyone will go out of their way to watch it.  But, it does its job well, and it will probably speak loudly to some young girls around the main character's age who have the same dream. 

Teen Spirit probably won't stick out in anyone's mind for long after they've watched it, but I enjoyed it while it was playing out.  It's the kind of movie you might discover on TV one night, and find yourself more hooked in than you initially thought.

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