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The drama is as hollow as a guitar’s body, but at least Teen Spirit has a soul.

A Starlet Is Borne

Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning)
Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning)

There’s nothing novel about the story. It’s been done before — and with much more finesse. Check out Sing Street or The Commitments or Once or Patti Cakes. The core story is the same: a downtrodden singer from a painfully lower-class backdrop makes unlikely allies and moves up in the competitive world of music to make it big. And — surprise! — the music is actually performed by the cast.

In Teen Spirit, that story revolves around Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning, Super 8), a sweet and solitary girl trapped on the Isle of Wight, living with her mother, tending to farm animals, waiting tables at a grimy pool hall and singing at a dive bar on open mic night — all while having to go to a school where she doesn’t quite fit in. In short, her nightmare life is the reality of most teenagers around the world.

But she can sing. And she escapes her misery by tuning out the world and hiding in the lush fields of the isle’s countryside, headphones on and music crankin’. As fickle fate would have it, Teen Spirit, a talent competition not unlike American Idol and so many others clogging the air and stream, is coming to town for auditions. Out of nowhere, this plain Jane advances from one round to the next. And, as a 17-year-old, she adopts Vlad (Zlatko Buric, Dirty Pretty Things), a drunk Croatian former opera singer, as her stand-in uncle and guardian in order to circumvent the need to ask her mom for any help.

Don’t Kill My Vibe

This time around, even though the drama is alarmingly weak, there’s still enough heart here to make it feel (almost) wrong not to (even grudgingly) like it. C’mon now. It’s written and directed by first-time helmer Max Minghella, son of the ridiculously talented director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient director died far too young, with too many stories untold). And Elle Fanning continues to grow into adulthood onscreen, this time exercising her vocal cords as well.

But the missed dramatic beats are so obvious, it’s also hard to give this one a vote to move to the next round.

As Teen Spirit swiftly glides from one plot point to the next without the faintest sense of tension or desperation or desire or passion, it becomes clear it makes its spritely 92-minute run-time by cutting narrative corners. To that end, Violet’s mom offers only the most minimal of resistance to her daughter pursuing her musical dreams, despite their lowly means and the creepy old drunk guy shoehorning in as her manager. And the dramatic turns of her father having abandoned the family; the heartthrob winner of a previous Teen Spirit contest toying with Violet’s emotions; the tease of a record contract that would supplant Vlad as her manager — they all fall flat. There are mean girls. There’s a talent judge, Jules (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3), who should bring all manner of duplicitous controversy into the mix — but she doesn’t. And Vlad has a backstory to tell, including a borderline legendary reputation as an opera star and an estranged daughter living in Paris.

Sigh. So many possibilities for engaging drama, virtually all of them ignored.

There’s even hope in the early going that Teen Spirit will take a fresh tact on the training of young Violet, as her rough-around-the-edges natural self struggles to grow into a stage-worthy persona. But. No. An underwater breathing exercise is as close as this gets to Rocky: The Musical. There’s also a cool, extended take of Violet making her way through the studio’s hallways and onto the stage for the finals — a perfect moment for showing Violet transform from what Jules describes as a caterpillar into the butterfly of superstardom.

But no. Again.

What a Feeling

At least Teen Spirit is even-handed. The victories along the way up the popularity rankings are treated with the exact same indifference as the dramatic challenges. If there’s no dramatic wallop, there’s also no musical elation. It becomes flat, a veritable tone-deaf movie about the healing power of music.

Part of the fun of movies like Sing Street and Once is the introduction of fresh talent with original, pitch-perfect music. There’s a giddiness attached to watching the kids / buskers / what-have-you blossom.

As it stands, Teen Spirit serves as an unpolished idea in search of some passion that also gives Fanning a platform to further demonstrate her talent. She has a legitimate singing voice. And she’s even taken on Polish — with most of her conversations with her mother (Agnieszka Grochowska, Child 44) delivered in Polish and subtitled in English.