Elle Fanning’s awkward character perks up when she sings in “Teen Spirit.” (Bleeker Street)

Elle Fanning’s awkward character perks up when she sings in “Teen Spirit.” (Bleeker Street)

Moody ‘Teen Spirit’ smells like a darkish character study

Elle Fanning plays a sullen teen who pursues her dream of winning a TV singing competition.

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

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