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It's the Singer, Not the Song

Elle Fanning takes pop music to astonishing new heights

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We’ve seen the story plenty of times: an unknown ingénue from nowhere makes it big in show business. So a shoulder shrug for yet another version of the moth-eaten tale is understandable. It’s also presumptuous. Teen Spirit excels at every predictable turn, engaging us to gamely root for the protagonist to triumph, even though we already know she will.

Shy Violet (Elle Fanning) (maybe even shrinking?) lives with her religious mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on a farm on the Isle of Wight in the U.K. They’re poor—they sell eggs at a flea market—and Violet works at a bar, where she moonlights as a singer. She loves to sing, in fact, and is really quite good at it (Fanning does all her own voice work and she’s quite good) according to Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a husky local who’s not as he seems.

An opportunity appears. The singing competition “Teen Spirit” (like “American Idol”) is holding try-outs in the village. You know this part: She goes, thinks she does terribly, actually does quite well, and to her surprise and no one else’s, advances in the competition. Vlad’s singing experience is a plus as he manages her climbing career, and soon she has the entire Isle of Wight community supporting her.

Writer/director Max Minghella uses several artistic flourishes to keep things peppy and rolling along. For example, a montage of Violet’s initial audition is nicely packaged; later, the judges are deep in the dark when they speak to Violet on stage. To her, this makes them more ominous and scary, and because we see the ordeal through her, we feel her fear.

There’s also an impressive, extensive, tracking shot as Violet walks the halls to the stage. Note the movement toward and away from her as a purple strobe light pulses behind her while she sings. Minghella has taken the standard moments of this film genre and artistically elevated them in interesting, new ways—kudos to him for bringing something sparkly fresh to the story. He includes a pop-filled soundtrack, including the timely use of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the beginning, underscoring the sense of being trapped that Violet has in her routine of work, school, home, work. The lyrics “I’m just a girl, living in captivity” enlarge the spirit of the scene perfectly.

As for Fanning, she handles herself well in this first musical. She speaks Polish, has a natural singing voice, and depicts Violet’s transition from an unknown to the bright lights of opportunity with just the right balance of nerves and ambition. In the end, when her otherwise dour character smiles, she lights up the screen with an exuberance we can’t help but share.

Teen Spirit is Minghella’s directorial debut. It’s far from groundbreaking, but it is impressive and intelligent in all the ways it should be to be successful. Here’s hoping he’ll grow and do something more daring and original next time. He’s earned the right to try.

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