Some singers start young, before they have a clue about how the music business can chew up their talent and package it for mass consumption. Take Violet, the 17-year-old dreamer played with shy loveliness and a tough core by the luminous Elle Fanning. Violet lives in a tight squeeze on the Isle of Wight, where she’s mocked by schoolmates for singing for drunks at a local pub and berated by her Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) for believing in fantasies that pay off in heartbreak. Then a British singing competition called Teen Spirit hits the Isle and fires her up.
It’s a tale as old as American Idol, and the script goes exactly where you think it’s going. But writer-director Max Minghella, in a more than promising debut behind the camera, has a flair for dazzling detours and actions that define character. You may know Minghella as an actor — he’s Elisabeth Moss’s forbidden love on The Handmaid’s Tale. He’s also the son of Oscar-winning director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), who grew up on the Isle of Wight. And like his late father, the young Minghella is dedicated to getting the details just right.
That he does. He shows us this shrinking Violet alone in her room, rocking out to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.” Later, at an audition, she nails the ache in Ellie Goulding’s “Lights.” Offstage, her confidence disappears. She picks a boozy, grizzly bear of a manager in Vlad (Croation actor Zlatko Buric), a former opera star, to help sidestep her mother, who’d rather have Violet stick to singing in the church choir. With Vlad at her side, the young woman travels to London where making it through the rivalries of the televised competition will make her or break her already fragile spirit.
In terms of the big picture, however, Minghella knows he’s running on a formula wheel, and he doesn’t do much with the subplot of Violet’s racially-mixed backup band, also recruited from the Isle of Wight. In an even worse collision with cliché, he delivers Violet into pallid temptation with last year’s winner (Ruairi O’Connor). Let’s just say sparks don’t exactly fly.
Things heat up when the great Rebecca Hall commands the scene as a record exec — think a female Simon Cowell — whose red lip gloss and seductive purr are the warning signs of an impure predator. As for the scenes of Violet singing her heart out in front of live TV cameras, the film benefits from the artful play of color and light contributed by cinematographer Autumn Durald, best known for her videos for Solange Knowles, Janelle Monáe and Arcade Fire.
In the end, though, Teen Spirit rises to the occasion on the shoulders of its remarkable leading lady. Fanning, 20, handles the dramatic demands of the role like a seasoned pro. That’s to be expected given how bright she shone from her child-actress days in I Am Sam with Sean Penn through her growing maturity in Super 8, Somewhere and 20th Century Women. Her confrontations with Buric and Grochowska achieve a rare intensity that lifts the film.
Still, it’s Fanning’s singing that is truly revelatory. Violet is recessive on the surface (a TV no-no). So the challenge is to show how music illuminates the feelings burning inside this small-town girl whose default position is withdrawal. And Fanning — who does her own singing (minus auto-tuning) — makes believers of us all. Without resorting to the runs and glissandos that mistake showing off for vocal prowess, she lets it rip for the onstage finale with Sigrid’s “Don’t Kill My Vibe.” You can kill the vibe of Minghella’s film with nitpicking, but Fanning rides the movie home to glory. She is simply sensational.