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TEEN SPIRIT: 3 ½ STARS. “universal messages for anyone with a dream.”   

“Teen Spirit,” a new musical drama starring Elle Fanning, sets the authentic story of hopes and dreams against the artificial backdrop of a televised singing competition.

Fanning plays Violet, an Isle of Wight teen who works in a pub, goes to school and spends weekends selling produce from her family‘s farm at a local market. She can also sing like a popstar and often sneaks into town to perform at a local open mic because her strict mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) doesn’t approve. “Do you want to sing? You have the choir. What better audience than the Lord himself?” Drawn to the more secular pleasures of “I’m Just a Girl” by Gwen Stefani, she has dreams beyond singing in church.

When a dayglo ad for an “American Idol” style talent show called “Teen Spirit” (Sing Your Heart Out!) catches her eye she signs up for the cattle call audition. Making it through the first round—after singing and dancing à la Britney—she’s told she’ll need a guardian if she is to continue. Asking her mother is out of the question so she approaches Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a local man, who happens to be a former opera singer, to pose as her uncle and sign her into the competition. He agrees but says, “If you win I’ll be your manager.”

Electro-pop isn’t his gig, but he teaches her stagecraft, how to breathe and to sing from the heart. At her next try out Jules (Rebecca Hall), a Simon Cowell type in haute couture, tells her, “You have a nice voice. You have to work on everything else.” With Vlad and the help of a local bar band she tunes up for the big show but, thrown into the fast-paced world of television and music, will all the newfound attention go to her head? “You’re a caterpillar,” Jules says. “We are a cocoon. Maybe together we can make a butterfly.”

“Teen Spirit” is a “Flashdance”-style underdog story (you even hear a snippet of the famous Irene Cara song on the soundtrack) set in a familiar milieu. In his directorial debut Max Minghella keeps the rise (there is no fall) story simple—it’s like an elaborate performer bio segment on “American Idol” and the like—but the characters are not.

Violet blooms over the snappy ninety-minute running time. From shy girl to confident performer, her character has an arc on and off stage. On stage by the time she delivers a blistering version of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” there is no doubt she has learned to sing from the heart. Just as interesting is her off stage behavior as she learns to trust her instincts and realize her dreams. Fanning is wonderful, she can sing but also gives vivid life to all of Violet’s aspirations and desires. Buric and Grochowska hand in heartfelt performances but it is Fanning who keeps this movie’s heart beating.

“Teen Spirit” is not a searing expose of the music business. It’s a specific story, set within the music business, that has universal messages for anyone who has ever dreamed a dream.


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