Music allows people to communicate through an intense vulnerability that other forms of communication just can’t do. Max Minghella, who wrote and directed “Teen Spirit,” does not showcase this transformative, transcendent power that even pop music can have — instead reminding us of every reason to hate pop music because of what it can be: vapid and devoid of any sign of a soul behind the product. Unfortunately, in spite of its intention, this is exactly what “Teen Spirit” is.
Set somewhere in the U.K. in an indiscernible time period, “Teen Spirit” is an incongruous 90 minute, seizure-inducing pop music video, featuring a very miserable looking Elle Fanning. Violet, played by Fanning, is reduced to a despondent, soulless teenager who is given the tired character traits of hating her job and sulking about going to school. She likes to sing, but the film never expands on this notion. Yet, this characteristic is apparently supposed to be enough for audiences to believe that she would drop everything to fight for this dream.
At face level, the film is as fragrant and familiar as the deodorant it shares its name with. But just like the deodorant, the film’s facade doesn’t do nearly enough to cover up the stench that lies just beneath the surface. Each character that is introduced, as well as every obstacle that falls in Violet’s unclear path, is a hollow, purposeless device with rarely any follow-through.
The film, while at times visually interesting, scarcely graduates beyond vibrant lights, inexplicable horse shots and a hardly compelling underdog of a protagonist. If there was ever a time when a blue-eyed, blonde-haired so-called “outcast” dancing around her bedroom incited enough emotional reaction to carry an entire film, it has long passed. But Minghella’s debut film banks on this exact flop of motivation to attempt to rationalize sitting through the film’s entirety. If you needed a sign that you weren’t going to find that anywhere in the film’s 90-minute run time, this is it.
Violet lives with her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska), whom she despises for a transgression that is never substantiated by any matter of consequence. Because her mother’s initial distaste for Violet’s dream disqualifies her from serving as a guiding figure, the audience is offered salvation from the shipwreck that is “Teen Spirit” in the shape of Vlad (Zlatko Buric), Violet’s former opera star turned washed-up drunkard of a mentor. Buric’s performance stands out as one of the only successful elements of the film as he brings humanity and nuance to a movie whose slate of one-dimensional characters is seemingly endless.
This especially applies to characters like the film’s not-so-antagonizing antagonist, Jules (Rebecca Hall), who reduces Violet’s entire MO, that is, her apparent love for singing, into a one-liner that only further muddles the clarity of the entire goings-on of the movie. Though no character’s one-dimensionality is more exhausting and disappointing than our heroine’s own lack of depth, Violet’s love for music is supposed to define the dynamism that the film is meant to achieve, but the result is merely an insipid void of information — never manifesting into anything other than what one assumes is supposed to be character development. The film is a maze with no exit.
As such, rather than telling a complete story, the film feels like it wants to tell a handful of stories, but is never quite able to finish any of them. It’s a collection of loose ends held together only by a confusing selection of dated, baffling pop music and the value of Elle Fanning’s name.