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TIFF Review: Teen Spirit

At its core, Teen Spirit is a love letter to pop music, something writer/director Max Minghella (seen most recently as Nick in The Handmaid’s Tale) is unapologetically obsessed with. And while there is nothing particularly original about the story, the way its told is more complex, more layered than what you might expect. With a few indie musicals hitting the screens in recent memory (Hearts Beat Fast not long ago) and films like The Greatest Showman bringing in the bucks at the box office, it would seem that the genre is seeing a resurgence of popularity.

Teen Spirit tells the story of Violet (Elle Fanning), a young Polish girl living on the Isle of Wright with her mother. During her days she is accompanied constantly by her iPod, reliably feeding her a steady stream of pop. She works a job waitressing, she works on their farm, she sings in the church choir, but in her minimal free time she lets loose in her bedroom dancing to her favourite tunes or she heads to a dodgy bar in town and sings. Its here that she meets Vlad (Zlatko Buric), previously a famous opera singer, who takes her under his wing when she requires a guardian to vouch for her at auditions for a popular singing competition, Teen Spirit. What ensues is largely predictable, but happens in unpredictable ways.

Probably the most unpredictable is just how incredible Elle Fanning is at the microphone. All the singing was done live, not dubbed, and let me tell you, the girl can sing. If you’ve followed Fanning for her career, starting as just a young child (she was in I am Sam at age 2!)  you have watched her blossom and witnessed her acting capabilities mature, largely in indie films like The Neon Demon and The Beguiled. But you’ve never seen her like this.

Without Fanning, Teen Spirit may have been less… spirited. But Max Minghella has also managed to craft a fairly confident debut here. Aided by the beautiful cinematography of Autumn Durald-ArkpawSpirit is colourful and stylized where it needs to be, always using light to suit the tone of the film. Couple this with a soundtrack, including some fantastic original songs by Marius DeVries, that is expertly curated and you have a pretty entertaining movie on your hands. While the third act is a little uneven, all is forgiven during Violet’s final performance and the overall result is such an enjoyable experience.  When talking about Teen Spirit Minghella said that he wanted to make a movie you would watch more than once, and I for one would be happy to do so.

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