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'Teen Spirit' Smells Like A Quirky, Beguiling Hit

<em>Teen Spirit</em> stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a girl from the Isle of Wight with dreams of being a pop star.
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Teen Spirit stars Elle Fanning as Violet, a girl from the Isle of Wight with dreams of being a pop star.

The terrific young actress Elle Fanning has a still, otherworldly beauty and a quizzical air, as if she just wafted in from some other planet and was baffled by the odd ways of Earth. A wise old soul in a supermodel's body, Fanning might not be the intuitive choice to play an unpopular high school girl with songbird ambitions and no threads to match. Turns out she can sing, dance and handle dialogue in both Brit and Polish — all while projecting a chronically introverted Cinderella vibe, with a wild side yearning to break free.

In Teen Spirit, a confident directing debut by actor Max Minghella ( The Handmaid's Tale), we meet Fanning's Violet marooned at the poverty-stricken butt end of England's scenic Isle of Wight, tending to goats while secretly performing for a smattering of indifferent barflies in a down-at-heel local pub. Mean girls abound in class; the school choir fails to satisfy; and Violet's harried Polish mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) isn't exactly on board for her daughter's decision to audition for a local song competition. Discouraged, Violet is ready to give up when an unlikely fairy godfather materializes in the amply-bellied form of Vlad (a very good Zlatko Buric), a washed-up opera singer in acute need of spiritual redemption and income, not necessarily in that order.

Vlad has smashed his own life to rubble, but in the way of teen dramas he will prove solid in ways that go way beyond teaching Violet how to breathe through a stanza. Others will help her out with her stage presence as much as with her unhelpful fantasies about a father whose absence she can fill up with demonization or with hero worship. True to genre, Violet faces down the usual array of bullies and cheaters; a handsome jerk who threatens to derail her focus; a slick music biz packager waving an iffy contract and nimbly played against type by Rebecca Hall.

Still, what Teen Spirit lacks in original premise it makes up for with skillfully mounted ambiance that adds up to a beguiling calling card for Minghella, who comes in blessed with killer cinematic genes. His father was the late Anthony Minghella ( The English Patientand Truly, Madly, Deeply), and Max harnesses his dad's gift for breathing romance into the dreariest habitat, which he retools into his own generational idiom with music-video energy and an eclectic soundtrack, by turns jaunty and wistful, that stretches from Annie Lennox to Ariana Grande and Katy Perry.

It's Fanning, though, who retains the sweetness of this heavily-trodden teen fable without ever tipping it over into cloying goo. Now 21 years old, Fanning has been acting since she was three years old. In vastly divergent roles such as the poorly mothered British teen in Sally Potter's Ginger & Rosa (2012), feisty Princess Aurora in Robert Stromberg's 2014 Maleficent, and a sexed-up minx in Sofia Coppola's 2017 The Beguiled, Fanning has always exuded a signature restrained gravity that hints at much internal ado. Here, too, she pays out an ambiguity that keeps us wondering, and not a little anxious, about the inner tensions that both stymie this young woman and propel her forward from shy caterpillar to resplendent butterfly.

Always on her own terms, Violet releases the necessary exhibitionist in her slowly and with something approaching reluctance. She's a winner, but the movie leaves us with just enough openness in Violet's destiny to make me imagine what depth Fanning might bring to a movie about a pop star trying to deal with flaming out rather than winning. Vox Lux, perhaps, only without the shouting.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.