Review: Something Gets Lost Between the Songs in Teen Spirit

For reasons I’m not sure I explain, we are in a cinematic era of fake female rock/pop singers. Gone is the fascination with biopics of real singers (with the exception of Bohemian Rhapsody, which did next to nothing for me). Instead, we’re getting A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, and two this week—Her Smell and Teen Spirit. While Her Smell is a tear down of a fading punk rock singer possibly past her prime, Teen Spirit catches young Violet (Elle Fanning) at the beginning of her career, when the talented but still unconfident singer enters a UK television singing competition with the help of a Russian alcoholic former opera singer named Vlad (Zlatko Buric).

Teen Spirit Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Written and directed by actor Max Minghella (son of the late filmmaker Anthony Minghella), making his feature debut, Teen Spirit is fueled and propelled by a series of familiar pop songs, interpreted by Fanning and the other singers in the contest, and as long as the singing is happening, the film is pretty great. It’s what happens in between that doesn’t quite connect. The scenes with Violet and her overprotective but somehow still negligent Polish immigrant mother (the great Polish actress Agnieszka Grochowska) come up short and familiar. More successful is the interaction between Violent and her self-appointed manager, Vlad, who she literally met in the bar where she sings at night and hired him to pretend to be her uncle to get into the competition.

It’s difficult to believe Rebecca Hall could be bad in anything, but her portrayal of the show’s shady producer, who is trying to get Violet to sign a record contract before the contest even begins, is trite and clichéd. Teen Spirit has enough going for it—mostly the music—to give it the mildest of recommendations, if only for Fanning completists. But the rest of the movie feels stale and often depressing. It’s mission isn’t to make this type of quick rise to fame appear appealing, but this glum version of the age-old journey is too much of a downer for its own good.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.