Reviewed on 07-12-2020
(Note: You will see Teen Spirit listed as a 2018 film elsewhere because it played at the Toronto film festival on Sept. 7th of 2018. That matters not to me. I go by the commercial release. And that did not happen until April 12th 2019).
I told a story in my review of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2016 masterpiece The Neon Demon. A story about how, as I was sitting there in the theater being blown away by Elle Fanning’s tour de force performance, the only other people in the theater (an elderly couple), fled in terror mumbling about how it was the worst movie they ever saw. When I saw Teen Spirit in the theater on opening day on April 12, 2019, no such thing happened. That is because I was the only one in the theater.
Teen Spirit is the most mishandled, poorly marketed movie in the history of cinema. It, like The Neon Demon, is a mother freaking masterpiece, showcasing yet another transformative, epic piece of work by the great Elle Fanning, a young actress who seems to be without limits.
In Teen Spirit she does a localized, highly-specific, regional British accent with such natural effortlessness, you’ll swear it is just the way she speaks for real. Oh, and she speaks fluent Polish. And she sings. No, I mean she sings! She really sings. Sings and performs like an elite pop star. If Elle ever decided to pursue this other gift of hers and put out a pop album, you bet your ass I’d be pre-ordering it on Amazon the second the title had a listing.
A huge part of this film’s tragic fate is the horrible, misleading title. It confused people. Half of the potential movie patrons thought it was a movie about the legendary grunge band Nirvana. The other half thought it was a kiddie flick aimed at thirteen year-olds. Teen Spirit is just an awful title. They should have just called it The Singer. They should have called it anything else but Teen Spirit.
This is the story about the potential rise of a pop star, told without shallow clichés and tired movie music story tropes. It is told without glitter and sap. Instead we get real characters, naturalistic performances, and genuine real and moving sentiment.
Elle’s character Violet is a hard-working seventeen year-old who busts her ass day in and out—working a small family farm for her struggling, tough mother, going to school, and waitressing at night to help her mother make ends meet. But she has a burning dream that will not die. She wants to sing. So she sneaks off to a seedy bar late at night and takes the microphone before a handful of zoned-out drunks.
Her journey begins when one of those drunks takes notice. An old, washed-up former opera star named Vladimir Brajkovic brilliantly portrayed by Zlatko Buric. He is a great character and his relationship with Violet is the heart of this movie.
Directing from his own script, Max Minghella gives Teen Spirit an edgy, realistic flair, trusting his cast and star with lots of long takes that gives the film a lived-in look. There is one scene in particular, as Violet leaves the dressing room and makes the long walk to the stage for her make or break performance. Minghella tracks her from the front with a low angle moving Steadicam shot. It is masterfully done and really brings us into the moment.
Bottom line: **** (out of four)
Teen Spirit is an unsung marvel. An absolute dramatic gem featuring a knockout performance from its triple threat star Elle Fanning.