Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) has really blossomed as an actress from Super 8 to 20th Century Women to The Beguiled. And, now under the rather poised debut of Max Minghella (son of the late, award-winning Anthony and of The Social Network and “The Internship as well as the low-budgeted Art School Confidential not to mention of late on the small-screen in The Handmaid’s Tale) she maintains a mature presence in Teen Spirit (subtitled in places).
There isn’t the same dramatic chops of Bradley Cooper’s rendition of A Star Is Born or the political climate of a Vox Lux, but a mostly spare, personal touch is imparted by the 33-year-old in realizing what resonates more from a coming-of-age angle. The 21-year-old plays 17-year-old student, horse-tending, pub-toiling Violet on the Isle of Wight (where Minghella was born). The reticent, ungraceful teen has a Polish mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska) and perhaps British truant father. What elevates Violet is singing, whether in her room or at the pub primarily occupied by callous sots.
In the vein of John Carney’s Begin Again a usual tavern inhabitant, a former well-known Russian opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric) sees an opportunity for Violet that also could be worthwhile for himself. Vlad has a hard time convincing her mother about his intentions, if his honor is compromised with a little avarice as Violet’s aspiration is to try out for the eponymous faux British television talent program akin to Pop Idol and American Idol. Marla prefers her participating in gospel music at church, not teenybopper pop fluff.
What’s interesting is how Minghella chooses to sidestep the usual progression in this sort of flair; the Violet/Vlad dynamic never feels uneasy as their union forms the key emotional core of a pretty solid, if arguably studied narrative (especially upon “final show” preparation in London). Fanning espouses the fragility of Violet who easily captivates with her vocals (the actress isn’t lip-syncing) doing her best with Annie Lennox’s “Little Bird,” and really excelling late with “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” With a witty surrogate figure in Buric, a moody music video aura, some bumps among an upbeat development, Teen Spirit is honest, unsentimental non-commercial filmmaking covered well.