Moments of magic in tale of girl's search for stardom

REVIEW / MUSICAL DRAMA

TEEN SPIRIT (PG)

92 minutes/opens today/3 stars

The story: Violet (Elle Fanning) is a teen in rural England, not given to hoping for much in life because of poverty. She is looked after by a protective Polish-immigrant single mother and has a secret gig singing karaoke to drunks at the local pub. She meets Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up former opera singer, and persuades him to pretend to be her guardian after she wins a spot in the Teen Spirit national talent competition.

This story strips the hungry-artist musical to its essentials: No quips, no ensemble of starry-eyed dreamers, no boy-meets-girl romance, no backstabbing rivals. It takes a deep dive into the shallow pool that is the world of manufactured idols, a choice that is both the film's strongest point and greatest weakness.

The setup is Cinderella-simple: Winning a televised reality show is Violet's ticket out of the rural confines of her village on the Isle of Wight.

Even the dialogue is sparse. She is a loner, so there is no one to whom Violet can speak her thoughts. Actor-turned-director Max Minghella in his feature debut locates the drama inside Violet's head, expressed in the songs she plays through headphones while she looks into space.

He does not stint elsewhere - the rest of the film leans on pop soundtracks to illustrate her evolution from shy teen to confident performer. In another welcome departure from movie formula, Violet has no "It" factor; she has to slog to win.

Fanning sings the tracks her character performs in the talent show scenes, with the actress covering the pop songs of Ariana Grande, Robyn, Grimes and Katy Perry, each tune more soaring and anthemic than the last. Audience fatigue sets in quickly - there can only be so many anthems before each one melts into the next, becoming one indistinguishable whole.

Minghella weaves in a thread about Violet's family as low-status immigrants from Poland. Beyond adding cultural texture to scenes between the teen and her mother, as well as a touch of poignancy to her desire to be accepted by the mainstream of the English television audience, her foreignness is largely left unexplored.

Her relationship with hard-drinking manager Vlad, played with sweaty, raspy realism by the excellent Croatian actor Buric, is thankfully more fully formed. His performance is the best thing in this movie. He is the classic movie surrogate father, the inscrutable Yoda to her bewildered Skywalker. Buric makes every line pay off in humour and pathos.

Violet's stakes feel low. If she loses the Teen Spirit competition, so what? There are other paths to stardom. Minghella's serious take on a trite topic breaks no new ground, but it has more than a few moments of pure pop magic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 09, 2019, with the headline 'Moments of magic in tale of girl's search for stardom'. Print Edition | Subscribe