Poptimism sets Teen Spirit apart from the recent spate of music movies

Actor Max Minghella (The Handmaid’s Tale) on directing Ellle Fanning in his directorial debut.

Elle Fanning in Teen Spirit

Films about musicians have been having a moment for the last couple of years. Biopics about real-life musicians like Bohemian Rhapsody and The Dirt are overtly celebratory and fawning, while films about fictional popstars like A Star Is Born, Vox Lux or even Alex Ross Perry’s upcoming Her Smell have a more cynical approach to the industry.

Though the new film by Max Minghella (an actor probably best known for The Handmaid’s Tale, making his directorial debut) focuses on a fictional pop star and a fictional singing competition, it stands somewhat alone in its lack of cynicism about the industry and the pop-star industrial complex. It plays almost like an anti-Vox Lux, outwardly celebrating the rousing nature of pop confections and the fairytale nature of televised singing competitions. Even for someone such as myself who considers themselves the furthest thing from a poptimist, I have to admit that the film’s positive outlook took me pleasantly by surprise.

“It’s funny, because I think of myself as the most cynical person,” says Minghella. “I’m really happy you didn’t feel the film was cynical. I honestly love pop music and I honestly love opera, and there’s a lot of both in Teen Spirit. I think of both of them as extremely helpful devices in this medium, specifically, of making movies. There’s something super cinematic about the soundscape of that stuff.”

Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning) lives on the Isle of Wight with her high-strung, domineering mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska), trying desperately to keep the farm that Violet’s father left behind afloat. Violet’s only outlet is singing to drunks in a sad local pub, a practice that her mother discourages as a waste of time when she could be working. It’s in this pub that she meets Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up former opera singer who seems to be the only guy in the pub to notice her talent. When a singing competition comes to town holding auditions, Violet needs a guardian to sign off on her participation — knowing that her mother would never approve, she convinces Vlad to act as her uncle in order to get her foot in the door. To her and her mean-girl classmates’ surprise, Violet nails the audition and finds herself flown out to London to participate in the televised final of a gaudy variety show called Teen Spirit.

Teen Spirit has an overt underdog aesthetic, drawing from films like Flashdance and Dirty Dancing not only for its structure but for its music-video-inspired visuals.

“It wasn’t so much that I was thinking about music videos as I was thinking about playing with chronology and delivery of exposition,” says Minghella. “My biggest allergy as a filmgoer is exposition — I hate it. The moment that I have to have someone go, “Oh, Violet, you better enter this singing competition or else Grandma’s gonna have to go to the hospital” or something — I hate stuff like that. I really was much more interested in involving the audience with these characters and their stories in a way that felt less obvious and pandering. I think that visual storytelling is very useful; it’s a visual medium, and audiences are very clever and they can interpret a lot very, very quickly. Some of my favourite filmmakers are also very, very good at conveying narrative very efficiently through visuals. That was really my main excitement about the music; the music allows me to do that. I can reveal that my protagonist’s mother had this adulterous affair when she was a child in four seconds and the audience is gonna understand that. It’s a really exciting opportunity, I think.”

Minghella is the son of late director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), who was born on the Isle of Wight, a relatively underrepresented area of England that nevertheless takes a central role in Teen Spirit.

“My father’s family is still all on the Isle of Wight, so there’s a big personal connection there,” Minghella explains. “But honestly, straight up, the movie would have been set there anyway because of the metaphor of this girl on an island who is literally geographically separated from her dreams. The movie has this sort of fairytale feeling running through it.”

A lot of Teen Spirit, of course, centres on Elle Fanning, who does all of her own singing in the film. The only American cast member (though most of the scenes between Violet and her mother are actually in Polish), Fanning was a late-in-the-game development that unlocked everything for Minghella.

“The honest answer is that she came up very late in the process,” says Minghella. “The movie was originally almost entirely in Polish, so we’d been looking almost exclusively at actresses from Eastern Europe who could sing, dance, speak two languages, carry the whole movie and be in the right age range, which was proving just impossible. We could find three or four out of five, but never all five. We kind of almost gave up hope, and my producers decided to announce the film without a cast, which really felt like a suicide mission. Elle heard about the film and reached out to us; I had lunch with her and it was immediately clear that she would play the part. Not only would she play the part, in fact, but that we wouldn’t be able to find anyone else who could do it. Elle is so uniquely gifted in the way that we needed this character to be gifted — the singing and the choreography and all that is so easy to her, the dialect… all of that. But it’s really her discipline, I would say, as a person that sealed it. It’s such an almost athletic challenge to play a character like this in a movie like this. It’s not like this is a $50-million studio movie with those kinds of resources. She did a tremendous amount to lead the charge; the movie would not only not exist without her, but it would also be truly terrible!” ■

Teen Spirit opens in theatres on Friday, April 19. Watch the trailer here: