By Chaz Lipp
The Lowdown: Predictable down to its very last beat, this old-fashioned tale of an emerging vocalist benefits from strong work by Elle Fanning.
Writer-director Max Minghella (son of the late, great Anthony) strikes a retro tone with this rags-to-riches story about an aspiring pop singer. Basically it boils down to a scenario that has unfolded in countless films, told efficiently if unremarkably. Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning) is a British council house-dwelling teenager working several jobs while dreaming of becoming a star.
Her hyper-religious mom Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska) feels Violet should focus on church choir singing and leave the secular stuff to the heathens. “What better audience could you have than the Lord,” she asks. But belting pop tunes offers Violet a respite from her chores of milking goats and waiting on the popular girls at a local nightspot. After spotting an ad for national TV singing contest Teen Spirit from her bus window, Violet resolves to take a big leap and try her luck.
It’s the Rocky formula, complete with a Mickey-type mentor in the form of aging alcoholic Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a former opera singer who “discovers” Violet at an open-mic night. While at first it seems that Vlad is interested in more than Violet’s voice, he genuinely wants to guide her and help expand her vocal capabilities. Everything unfolds on a beat-by-beat predictable schedule, as if the screenplay was intentionally constructed to match the assembly-line commerciality of a corporate-produced pop hit.
While nothing—and I do mean nothing—about the narrative will surprise anyone who has seen a few inspirational, triumph-over-adversity dramas, what is striking is Elle Fanning’s lead performance. She paints Violet in very low-key, subtle strokes, but most impressively she does all her own singing. I suspect there’s a fair amount of production applied to her vocals (maybe some pitch correction?), but overall she displays an emotive, convincing pop voice. That element alone elevates the formulaic film to a higher level.
Director Minghella has little insights to offer (least of all about the world of reality TV talent shows). Teen Spirit feels cobbled together from bits and pieces of other, similar movies. It’s the strong work by Fanning and also Buric, who is entirely believable as the grizzled surrogate father Vlad. It’s disappointing that Minghella couldn’t mine his material to find a few new notes that might’ve turned a serviceable film into an exceptional one.