Music is a lifeline out of the doldrums of an English small town in “Teen Spirit,” an energetic rags-to-riches drama that spotlights its star, Elle Fanning, in surprising ways.
The American-born Fanning plays Violet Valenski, a Polish-born teen living on the Isle of Wight. She goes to school, she waits tables at the bowling alley, and she feeds the goats on the small farm she and her mother, Maria (Agnieszka Grochowska), try to keep afloat. Sometimes she gets to take the stage at the local bar and sing, her one true passion in life.
Violet learns she has a fan, Vlad (Zlatko Buric), one of the drunks at the bar. When the national singing-competition show “Teen Spirit” comes to the Isle of Wight to audition singers, Violet wants to try. But, being 17, she needs an adult to approve. Rather than ask her mom, who would think it a waste of time, she asks Vlad to act a guardian.
Vlad immediately assumes the role of manager, and gives her some tips on how to sing better. Vlad’s secret, we learn along the way, is that he was once a great opera star in Russia. Violet’s success would not only be her ticket to London, but also a bit of redemption for Vlad.
Actor Max Minghella — whose resume includes “The Social Network” and a recurring role on “The Handmaid’s Tale” — wrote the screenplay, which follows the contours of an up-from-nothing star-in-the-making drama with few surprises. But as a first-time director, Minghella shows some sparks of inspiration, particularly in the dynamic staging of the TV-ready musical numbers. (Minghella, by the way, is the son of the late director Anthony Minghella, known for “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” among others.)
The biggest surprise is that Fanning really sings as Violet, and she’s good at it. She’s got the pipes and, more importantly, the passion to turn covers of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” and Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” into something fresh and propulsive. It’s Fanning’s music that gives “Teen Spirit” its intense fire.
Opens Friday, April 19, at theaters everywhere. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking. Running time: 92 minutes.