For his writing-directing debut, “Teen Spirit,” Max Minghella has appeared to issue himself a challenge. Can he put across the most clichéd plotline imaginable — talented wallflower singer, grizzled mentor, disapproving mum, national TV contest — on filmmaking style alone?
Not really, but not for lack of trying.
Minghella is an actor (“The Social Network”) who’s also the son of the late, great director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”); with “Teen Spirit,” it’s unclear whether he’s out to prove himself his father’s heir or set out on his own. Elle Fanning, wispy and tall, plays Violet Valensky, a Polish immigrant living with her dour mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) on a desolate farm on England’s Isle of Wight.
In addition, her father has abandoned the family and no one knows that Violet sings with a raging fire when she’s alone — certainly not the church choir members and high school acquaintances who consider her an invisible girl.
All this changes when talent scouts for a star-making televised singing contest called “Teen Spirit” descend upon the isle and, to everyone’s shock (except the audience’s), Violet advances through the ranks. As she gets closer to the finals in London, she acquires a coach in Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk with a past as a Croatian opera star and an estranged daughter. Look, I couldn’t make this up. But Max Minghella did.
There are rivals (Clara Rugaard as a more camera-ready contestant), a cute guy from home (Archie Madekwe as the guitarist in Violet’s backing band), a boy-band superstar offering big-city temptations (Ruairi O’Connor as an ersatz Harry Styles), and a music-industry snake (Rebecca Hall, popping in for a look-see). Will Violet resist? Have you ever been to a movie before?
Well, some people haven’t, and that’s why moviemakers keep telling the same stories over and over. And, to his credit, Minghella labors mightily alongside cinematographer Autumn Durald and editor Cam McLauchlin to hoist this glitter ball and set it spinning, if only for 92 minutes. The camerawork jostles and glows with the translucency of a gummy bear, and the film is paced with show-offy verve, leaping over plot points Minghella knows we know, underplaying big moments and pumping up the small ones.
And, very like a gummy bear, “Teen Spirit” gives you a nice little sugar rush until the lights come up and you realize you’re still hungry. Part of the problem is the script, which includes lines of dialogue so generic it’s as if Minghella is daring himself to squeeze a drop more juice out of them.
A greater problem is that we never really understand why Violet so passionately needs to sing. At 21, Fanning has been a striking presence in movies since her break-out role in “Super 8” (2011), and films like ”Ginger and Rosa” (2012), “20th Century Women” (2016), and “The Beguiled” (2017) have proved her acting bona fides. She does her own singing here and she’s quite credible covering pop-tart hits like Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe” and Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” even if “Teen Spirit” can’t quite convince us Violet has the chops to go all the way.
What’s missing from the character is any sort of dramatic motor other than vague adolescent dissatisfaction. Camera presence can’t fill in the blanks for a character who’s a cipher, and next to a star-is-born movie like, uh, “A Star is Born” (let alone last year’s “Vox Lux,” an acrid underside-of-fame fable starring Natalie Portman) “Teen Spirit” is a stylish doodle.
But it’s from a first-time filmmaker who’s still learning to draw and who likes to color outside the lines. So watch this space.
Written and directed by Max Minghella. Starring Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall. At Kendall Square. 92 minutes. PG-13 (some suggestive content, teen drinking and smoking).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.