|'Teen Spirit': Youth, Not Wasted on the Young|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
05:19PM / Thursday, April 25, 2019
If it's true that everything has a purpose, that there are clues to our lives in all that passes before us, especially a movie like "Teen Spirit" that I'd never see if I weren't a film critic, then what's Max Minghella's tale about a young lady's angst and ambitions trying to tell me?
I'm a long ways away from the joys and sufferings of my teen-aged years. Any meditations in that rearward direction are generally devoted to the vivacity that permeated my days of immortality, when wearing the right jacket at a specific time was less a health consideration than a statement of how cool I was. But indeed there were times during those fires of spring that fell as heavy upon my shoulders as any worry that presents itself here in my three score and then some. So, why the reminder?
The last thing youngsters want to hear is that their anguish must be dismissed because of their relatively few years on this planet, that this too will pass, and that with the experience of age they'll look back and laugh. I don't laugh when I think of Taffy's death, he in his seventh year, I in my 12th. But alas, the wirehaired mutt with the perfect black eye lived to chase cars, perhaps thus choosing the short but glorious, Achilles route. While I may have since put it in some adult perspective or rationalization, I can only cynically laugh about the greater pageant through which we travel. I'd be heartened to learn that Taffy thinks it's funny, too.
In Violet's pretty but almost always serious face, I read all these contemplations. Of Polish extraction but now living with her mom on a farm on the Isle of Wight, the aspiring singer played with compelling gravity by Elle Fanning sees her talent as the way to escape the desolation, ennui and drabness that has seared her soul at least since Dad unexplainably took it on the lam. Mom, played with her own, more experienced take on heaviness by Agnieszka Grochowska, is hardly the type to tell her daughter to cheer up, that things will all work out someday.
So it comes as no surprise that when Violet wants to enter the local plateau of a worldwide singing competition, Mother Maria is anything but supportive.
Enter stage left, Zlatko Buric's Vlad, a once great opera star fallen on the petard of his own misdoing, or so we assume by the guilt that frames his haggard, unkempt face. His eventual role as singing coach, mentor and surrogate father is a stereotype of a stereotype, and yet all but the most curmudgeonly of us will buy in wholeheartedly. Gosh knows there's enough solemnity here for two or three movies, and to deny the gift of this deus ex machina in perennially rumpled garb would be to abandon the idea of wishful thinking itself.
Yet although what follows is typical, save for the out-of-the-ordinary landscape and the rather philosophical patina of the plot, there I was cheering for Violet as she sings her way up the note scale. Still, my rooting was cautious, always respecting in fearsome awe the uncertainty of youth and the mysteries it held. One misstep and you're on the pre-gentrified Bowery, squeegeeing car windows, or at least that's what my Mom warned whenever she had trouble waking me for school.
Unlike what Violet's caustically downtrodden, unlucky-in-love Mom proffers via body language and deed, the idea is that we have a right to pursue bliss and glee. Heck, the Founding Fathers thought enough about it to put it in the Declaration of Independence. It's that sociological subtext that sets "Teen Spirit" apart from countless other youth-related films about showbiz aspirations, a movie sub-genre going as far back as Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy and pals planning to put on a show. The slightly dark, internal anomaly is that while this is ostensibly a coming of age story, Violet has had a head start in the business of living. She is already wise beyond her years, her outlook shaped by the economic rigors of her reality.
At once winsome yet sullen, she has made herself an adolescent version of Garbo in order to shield from the slings and arrows of peer pressure. When not in school, tending to the animals or secreting away to sing at a club, she works as a waitress. Thus, her dreams of stardom promise not only an extrication from the drab and mundane, but a reconnection to a partially stolen youth.
Heightening the authenticity, director Minghella employs an especially sober if not somber texture to mirror Violet's bittersweet worldview, causing us to cheer not just for the protagonist, but for what we hope is that "Teen Spirit" that resides in all of us.
"Teen Spirit," rated PG-13, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Max Minghella and stars Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric and Agnieszka Grochowska. Running time: 93 minutes