Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Teen Spirit (2018) dir. Max Minghella

"Singing, but have it in fluorescent colors"


Years ago, in the teens-doing-batshit-things television network The CW’s fall season line up, the histrionic debauchery of New York’s Upper Side youths returned for its fourth season, with stories that preceded the Twin Peaksian blues of Riverdale and on-the-nose Spanish opera cliches of Jane the Virgin. At this point, the show’s earlier titillating gimmicks had run its course for PG-13 shock, and there could be only so many different romantic intersections between the same set of friends, evident by the steady dropping by a soft half million viewers at each finale. And, of course, there is the mysterious blogger voice-over that keeps tabs on everything that happens to the cast, whose purpose is to both highlight the notion that it’s better to be talked about than to never be acknowledged, and to keep that last showrunning enigma alive. It’s 2010, and Gossip Girl is just about two-thirds of the way over.

The seventh episode, “War at the Roses,” aired in early November, and ends with the run-of-the mill Chuck-and-Blair nonsense. The origins and the nature of their relationship aren’t worth a dime for those who haven’t yet suffered an episode post-S1, but please know that they’re the worst together. Their affairs will continue on until the end of the show, but for now, they’re hooking up on top of a piano after exchanging a round of comically heated words (“I hate you”; “There’s a fiery PIT of hate burning inside of me ready to explode”). A couple of seasons ago, Blair loses her virginity in the back seat of a limousine while Manchester Orchestra blares over the scene. Now, in all its mismatched surroundings and editing, Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” concludes the episode. As this on-and-off couple succumbs to their demise of passionate bickering, the legends of a song ascends.

This is the first time “Dancing on My Own” is a background feature on popular media. And thank goodness it wasn’t the last, since it would be an obstruction of justice to not let the song accompany the proper atmosphere that it deserves. It’s a song of both narrative precision and emotional ambivalence. The clarity in Robyn’s lamentations over seeing her past love with someone new in a club is amplified through the certified electronic disco jam that it is, and it’s safe to say, evident from Honey‘s acclaimed release last year, that Robyn is the queen of sad bangers.

Lena Dunham and Allison Williams dancing to Robyn in GIRLS, 1×03 (2012).

Unfortunately, this is not going to be a discourse on the timelessness of “Dancing on My Own” (at least, not today). It’s about the song’s latest appearance in the newest singing movie, Teen Spirit, where director/screenwriter Max Minghella surely has listened many times to allow it to be the promotional single, as well as the central air of the movie’s musical atmosphere. Violet (Elle Fanning), a Polish teenager who lives on the Isle of Wight, wields the song as her audition for the eponymous reality competition. Instead of watching the entire performance in front of the judges, a montage is played – Violet strolling next to her white horse, Violet witnessing her mom having a sexual tryst, Violet being alone in a crowded room. There are contrasting images of purple neon glares and organic green pastures, as if music video director Hannah Lux Davis was head marketing for an Adidas x Scottish grass collaboration. It’s not explicit, but the montage appears to show what goes through her mind when she plugs in her earphones and listens to the song, and the concept of creating a sequence of images in your head in accompaniment to a song you like makes this scene the most inspired and relatable piece of the movie.

After warning her of the apparent inexperience in song choice and demeanor, the judges pass Violet to the next round. For the moment, she is ecstatic, her manager/former opera singer Vlad (played by Croatian actor Zlatko Burić) is ecstatic, the island is ecstatic. But it’s unclear exactly what Violet is looking for out of winning Teen Spirit. Aside from singing in bars, Violet doesn’t participate in songwriting, music production, band practice, or any hobby to suggest that she enjoys music any more than wording the lyrics of another person’s thoughts during a bus ride. On the flip side, her meek, aloof demeanor suggests that fame isn’t a priority, and she doesn’t actively hang with peers of her age. When scouting agent Jules (Rebecca Hall) asks her the reason for entering the competition, Violet responds, “I like to sing.” It’s a legitimate answer, but also, girl where? There is a weird disconnect in what the movie wants us to want for Violet (to be supportive in her endeavors and follow her in her journey) and what we actually see of Violet (that…she likes to sing).


Because of the lack of distinctive identity, she doesn’t stand out from the other contestants in Teen Spirit, even as the protagonist of her own story. It also didn’t help that Teen Spirit borrowed the S/S H&M in-store playlist from nine years ago, and used only up-tempo, synth-based songs to comprise Violet’s moods throughout her arc. The monotonous blend of the female-fronted pop songs with relatively limited vocal range reflects what little personality is given to her character. In one performance, donned in a red jumpsuit situation, she sings Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which was a baffling song choice since Violet did not have a single vibe to begin with. In allowing “Dancing on My Own” to be Violet’s song, I would have assumed it was a reflection on how Violet decides to pursue her joy, as she is seemingly lonely in the same autonomous decision as Robyn, dancing in her corner despite the despair. However, Violet regrettably skids off into the minefield of Cinderella-turned-singer tropes, such as crushing on a boy who reeks of asshole, pushing her friends and Vlad away as her fame heightens, and losing an independence of desire.

(For the record, I love Elle Fanning. I could have sworn that someone watched The Neon Demon and said, “Elle Fanning? Check. Red and blue lightings? Check. Modeling…how about singing instead?” For what it’s worth, Fanning acted as much of a normal teenager living in Minghella’s world as could exist, and if the screenplay had gone a different way, she would have done just as well.)

Teen Spirit
dir. Max Minghella
94 min

Now playing pretty much everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Somerville Theatre or your local independently-owned multiplex)

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