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

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Life

Matt Stewart, left, and Janice Ayala, right, spin during country dance lessons at Normanna Lodge on Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Everett, Washington. Normanna Lodge will be hosting country dance next Tuesday during PBR Stampede. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett Stampede aims to become a Western-themed tradition

The new weeklong event combines a popular Professional Bull Riders event with live music, two-step dancing and more.

Graham Kerr, 90, leans down and kisses his new wife, Nancy, during Senior Expo on Tuesday, March 26, 2024, at Hotel Indigo in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
‘Galloping Gourmet’ celebrity chef Graham Kerr is a Stanwood newlywed

The 90-year-old shared his love of Nancy, God and Costco at the Everett senior expo last month.

Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Edmonds Center for the Arts plays host to comedian Don Friesen on Friday and Grammy-nominated vocal group säje on Sunday.

Jon Kim freestyles during a RTHMZ rehearsal Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Moving with love: Lynnwood’s RTHMZ dances to their own beat

The team brings together dancers from across styles to raise the bar of what’s possible in the local scene.

Stress management, meditation or relaxation to reduce anxiety, control emotion during problem solving or frustration work concept, woman in lotus meditation on chaos mess line with positive energy.
Sharing reflections on 50 years of meditation

Meditation is no quick fix, but if you establish a consistent practice, over time, you’ll appreciate the results.

In the “rickety-chic” Psyrri neighborhood of Athens, you’ll find slick outdoor restaurants next to vibrant street art. (Cameron Hewitt)
No need to scram from an Athens on the rise

Rick Steves used to think of Athens as a big ugly city. But while updating his guidebook one summer, he discovered a many-faceted city that’s getting its act together.

chris elliott.
Why won’t Airbnb cover my hotel expenses? They promised!

When David Tuttle’s Airbnb host moves him to a different rental, Airbnb offers to cover his hotel expenses, but a month has passed since. Where’s the money?

Oumou Sangare, from Senegal, performs at the "Africa Standing Tall Against Poverty" in concert with Live8 in Johannesburg Saturday July 2, 2005. (AP Photo)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Hear Grammy winner Oumou Sangare on Saturday in Edmonds. Also on Saturday: The Everett Film Festival.

Jimmer DeGroot stands along the line of weber grills in his front yard on Sunday, March 31, 2024, in Grotto, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Why are there 24 Weber grills lined up on the highway to Stevens Pass?

Just ask Jimmer De Groot. He expresses his love of grills through his art. And it’s now a bit of an obsession.

2024 Honda Civic Type R (Photo provided by Honda)
2024 Honda Civic Type R

Developed in Japan, and track-tested around the world, the Civic R Type delivers 315 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, making it Honda’s most powerful production vehicle in the U.S.

Suomenlinna
Soul sisters Helsinki and Tallinn are pearls of the Baltic

While they have their own stories to tell, these cities share a common heritage of Swedish and Russian influences.

My trip to Iraq was canceled, so why can’t I get my $7,590 back?

When Diane Gottlieb’s tour of Iraq is canceled, the tour operator offers her a voucher for a future trip. But she wants a refund.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.