Although its title promises an exercise in upbeat moviegoing, “Teen Spirit” delivers nothing of the kind. This movie is about as perky as waterlogged pom-poms.
Good news, though: This is a feature, not a bug. Just as in the classic Nirvana song that also played with the phrase, this twist on teen spirit has its own darkish energy.
The title refers to a fictional British talent show, a variation on “American Idol” or “The Voice,” in which a talented teen will be catapulted to stardom
The teen we care about is Violet (Elle Fanning), a Polish-born 17-year-old living with her bitter single mom (Agnieszka Grochowska) on the Isle of Wight, off the English coast. At the very moment talent scouts descend on the island, Violet meets a retired opera singer (Zlatko Buric), who makes an excellent vocal coach.
As Violet forges ahead with the competition, you will probably notice that the story elements here are awfully familiar: absent father, mean-girl classmates, lots of dancing alone to records in a teenager’s room. Violet doesn’t have a romantic interest, but there’s a boy in her class who seems to be applying for the gig.
We also have temptation, in the form of a talent agent (Rebecca Hall, impeccable as usual) who offers Violet a fishy bargain.
There shouldn’t be any freshness left in this material, but writer-director Max Minghella (son of the late Oscar-winning “English Patient” filmmaker Anthony Minghella) proves once again it’s not what you tell, but how you tell it. And “Teen Spirit” has a sideways, moody take on its tale.
For one thing, Fanning’s heroine is no peppy world-beater, but a glum kid with motivation issues. The actress did her own singing, and from the sound of it she’s got a distinctive voice with impressive emotional range.
Part of the point, I think, is seeing how Violet changes when she sings — like certain performers in any profession, she’s uncomfortable in her own skin (Fanning slouches from room to room like a condemned prisoner) but lights up when she channels the words and music of others.
Minghella (ably aided by cinematographer Autumn Durald) creates an evocative look: low-lit domestic interiors, neon-flooded nightclubs and TV studios. And Violet’s songs are well-chosen, appropriate anthems for a 17-year-old girl.
In part because of its awkward heroine, “Teen Spirit” doesn’t reach out and cuddle with the audience — unlike some movies that shall remain nameless, but their initials are “A Star Is Born.” If you’re in the right mood, as I obviously was, this small-scaled character study will strike a few sparks.
“Teen Spirit” (3 stars)
Not the perky musical its title suggests, this character study has its own darkish energy. A shy, sullen small-town teenager (Elle Fanning) pursues her dream of winning a TV talent competition in England — not a new story, but director Max Minghella’s moody approach gives the material a distinctive feel, and Fanning’s singing is impressive.
Rating: PG-13, for language, subject matter
Showing: Everett Stadium, Pacific Place