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‘Teen Spirit’ covers cliched ground, but has a fresh melancholy air

Almost by definition, singing competition shows are lively, energetic, upbeat affairs full of musical fireworks and dramatic highs and lows. Movies like Pitch Perfect and TV dramas like Glee have capitalized on these naturally fun ingredients, not to mention the actual competition shows themselves like The Voice and American Idol.

A relatively low budget British film called Teen Spirit covers the same, rather cliched ground, but it does so with such a melancholy air that it seems almost fresh. And actress Elle Fanning (sister of Dakota) has a decent enough voice to convince us she just might be able to compete in the real thing.

Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a shy 17-year-old farm girl growing up on the Isle of Wight off the coast of England. Her rather uninspired life consists of taking boring classes at school and waitressing at a drab restaurant. She also has to work the farm in order to help out her sad mom whose husband (and Violet’s father) has left her. Violet’s only escape from the drudgery is singing karaoke at a run down bar.

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When a singing competition called Teen Spirit announces it’s doing auditions in her hometown, she decides to sneak away and give it a shot.

The judges criticize Violet’s lack of polish but compliment her raw talent and pass her through to the next level of competition. Meanwhile, she attracts the attention of a washed-up Croatian opera singer who becomes her coach/manager/father figure.

The rest of the movie charts their journey through the treacherous waters of competition and fame. For a movie about a talent show competition, there’s a surprising dearth of songs. Violet gets only three songs – that’s one for each half hour of the 90 minute movie – and they’re all pretty similar, one by Robyn (Dancing On My Own), one by Ellie Goulding (Lights), and the last by Sigrid (Don’t Kill My Vibe).

In fact, one of the judges critiques her for singing a song with such a limited range and that could go for all three of them. And the singing of the other contestants is barely featured at all.

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Curiously, first-time director Max Minghella (son of Oscar-winner Anthony Minghella) seems less interested in the musical performances than he is in the human drama behind the scenes. Unfortunately, the off-stage drama is what feels most cliched about the film: fights with her mom, voice lessons about singing from your heart, fights with her manager, seduction by the record companies. We’ve seen it all before.

Now it’s true we’ve seen plenty of music videos as well, but at least musical performances would seem to offer a filmmaker a little more creative freedom, allow him to have a bit of fun, or maybe provide some serious catharsis. Minghella takes a stab at catharsis near the end but it’s pretty muted. Much like Violet’s own response to the way things work out. And maybe that’s the movie’s point.

A pushy record executive tells Violet at one point:

“You’re a caterpillar; we’re a cocoon. Maybe together we make a butterfly.”

At movie’s end, Violet is still a caterpillar. And so is Teen Spirit.

 

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