By Jim Slotek
Could No Doubt’s Just a Girl become lazy empowering shorthand for filmmakers? The ‘90s song was last heard onscreen on the soundtrack Captain Marvel, supercharging its heroine to kick alien butt.
And now, in the silly and surreal Teen Spirit, it’s a signifier of a British teen girl’s furious determination to become a star.
The scene comes early in the movie, the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella. Violet (Elle Fanning), a Polish immigrant farm-girl on the Isle of Wight, pours every ounce of her desire to follow the music by dancing furiously in her room. For the record, that one scene has more authentic energy than the rest of the movie.
Beyond that, Violet’s only outlet for her desire to sing comes in the pub where she works, and where, while on her breaks, she sings for drunks. The job is to support her single mom (Agnieszka Grochowska), as is the time she puts in on the farm, sharing quality time with her favourite horse.
When a Brit reality-TV series called Teen Spirit (think a U.K. version of The Voice) comes scouting for talent, Violet is picked to go to London on the strength of tutoring from a boozy old Russian opera singer named Vlad (Zlatko Buric). After that, the colors go from pastoral to pastel, like flavours of bubble gum, as Minghella concocts a showbiz millieu that seems to exist only in his mind.
The fact is, Violet is just an okay singer. But the producers of the show Teen Spirit decide they like her look and her farm-girl story, and so the fix is in (sort of, the movie still tries to drum up some measure of breathless anticipation as to how Violet’s through-the-looking-glass trip to London will play out). There seems to be a message that “wanting” to win is uncool, and Violet’s undisguised ambivalence once she’s actually in the competition and on national TV is actually rewarded. (My theory is that Fanning just simply ran out of enthusiasm for the whole project).
Given that reality-TV talent shows are largely played out, with what’s left of their fandom skewing old, it makes sense to take Teen Spirit as some kind of period piece. Everyone seems to have smartphones, but Violet listens to her music on an iPod (and how does it make you feel to know that particular piece of technology is history?), and some songs covered are circa 2012. None of which adds up, but then Teen Spirit seems intended to be more of a dreamlike parable about stardom than anything coherent.
Minghella’s directorial debut is awash with mean girls, pretty boys, seizure-inducing club scenes, headache-inducing auto-tune, and a thin plot that unfolds (and ends) dizzyingly quickly. About the only thing that rings true is Vlad’s disgust at the goings-on. And really, what use is an actual professional talent at a reality-TV talent show?
Teen Spirit. Written and directed by Max Minghella. Starring Elle Fanning, Agnieszka Grochowska and Zlatko Buric. Opens wide across Canada, Friday, April 19.