Cinematic Releases: Smells Like: Teen Spirit (2019) - Reviewed

elle fanning

Despite the popularity of reality television singing competitions for the last two decades, not many movies have taken advantage of the public’s fascination with them (Sing and the Pitch Perfect series are the only ones that immediately spring to mind). There is inherent drama in regular folks’ quest to turn their previously untapped talent into instant fame. Teen Spirit mines that idea to decent effect. It is the story of a teenage girl who enters the titular competition to temporarily escape the monotony of her life. It is mainly about the impact chasing her dream has on her, with a very large focus on the music itself. It is an enjoyable journey with a good pace and strong lead performance.

Teen Spirit is the directorial debut of actor Max Minghella. He keeps things moving at all times, which is a positive for the most part. The story (which he also wrote) is not particularly original. He makes up for that by not messing around between plot points, bouncing swiftly from one to the next, always keeping the spotlight on his protagonist. There is no chance to get annoyed with the predictability because he never spends too long on any individual development.

elle fanning
Everything feels so Refn. 

Where it was bothersome was in the musical performances. While he does allow the songs to play, he does not let the viewer just enjoy them. The majority of them feature constant editing, sometimes to other moments in the character’s life, sometimes from one camera angle to another. The result is those sequences come off like a music video. The strategy makes sense considering the material, though it does not fit with the style of the rest of Teen Spirit, which tends to be much calmer with its camerawork. It is distracting. It became a challenge to remain engaged in the drama when the movie refused to stay still during its most important scenes.

However, Elle Fanning helps it overcome some of that. She plays Violet, a talented young singer with no clear direction. Fanning is only 21, yet she has a really interesting filmography full of prestige pictures, action, comedy, franchises and quirky indies. This is a glossy drama/musical she is able to infuse with a small amount of reality. This is a light crowd-pleaser, not a gritty showbiz tale. What she brings to it is the feeling of actual stakes otherwise absent from the story. It is easy to root for her, even if you have a pretty good idea how things are going to end up. She gets entertaining support from Zlatko Buric as a local who hears her singing at a bar. He gets a bit of a character arc, but mostly supplies some needed humor.

Teen Spirit is a pleasant experience that never digs any deeper than it absolutely has to. There are no big revelations or insights into singing competition shows or the music industry in general. What is does have is a decent enough story, quality acting and a lot of music. It may not be the definitive movie on the subject, but it is mildly fun while it lasts.

-Ben Pivoz