Teen Spirit

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This movie reminded me of the music intensive films John Carney (not the former Chargers kicker) gives us (Once, Begin Again, Sing Street). I would’ve prefered seeing Carney’s take on this very derivative story that actor Max Minghella (The Handmaid’s Tale) wrote and directed.

I initially thought I would’ve preferred someone other than Elle Fanning, because she’s fallen into that Woody Harrelson category for me. I’ve grown tired of seeing them in so many movies each year. But Fanning plays Polish teenage Violet Volanski, a quiet girl who has to work after school, perfectly. Her mom is having financial problems after dad bailed on them. She yearns to be a singer, so sometimes as she’s waiting tables, she’ll get up on stage and belt out a song. Oddly, nobody in the place seems to care, except for a big Russian dude with an unkempt appearance. He follows her home and offers her a ride. She wisely declines. Yet when she is forced to take a ride, it works out nicely for her. He’s a former opera singer who starts coaching her, giving her breathing techniques, but most importantly — since she’s under 18, she can pretend he’s her guardian and sign up for a competition her mom clearly doesn’t want her to enter.

As Vlad, actor Zlatko Buric steals the movie. He has a drinking problem, is estranged from his daughter, and while looking like Peter Grant (the huge former wrestler that managed Led Zeppelin), he pulls a Colonel Parker (Elvis’ manager). He says he’ll do all this for free, but if she makes it big, he wants to be her manager and take half of everything she makes. The mom (Agnieszka Grochowska of Shameless) will eventually shoot this down, and talks about 15% (although I wondered why he didn’t negotiate for a higher amount, seeing as he’s being paid nothing for driving her everywhere and coaching her).

It’s certainly impressive to find out that Fanning actually has a singing voice (vs. already knowing that about Lady Gaga going into A Star is Born).

This story takes place on the Isle of Wight, an island off England that I only knew of from music (the festival that Jimi Hendrix and The Doors played in 1970, and the Beatles song “When I’m 64”).

This is the usual story of the poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who despite some snickers from classmates, joins an American Idol/X-Factor singing contest. Of course, it will rally the island behind her, and just might get her tough as nails mom to warm up to the idea of her singing.

Everyone will talk about the performances Violet gives at the final competition and during her audition. Those were solid, but I preferred the small moments the movie gave us that you don’t usually see. For example, when she’s going out to audition and a woman is preparing her, she tells her as they’re walking to the stage, “The judges might cut you off to say something or have you sing something else. Don’t take that personally, that’s just what they do.”

Usually in movies like this they don’t tell us, and the audience is supposed to hate the judges for being so cruel. This showed you more of how a show producer would prepare teens for something like this.

That same producer, when finding out the Violet is 17, told her she needed a parent or guardian. Another movie would’ve made her being snotty about it. The producer merely said, “I don’t make the rules.”

I had mixed feelings on how when Violet sang, we saw clips of her with the horse she loves or kissing a guy. It felt like a cheesy music video, but…it did work on some level because you wonder what singers are thinking about as they’re trying to evoke the emotions corresponding to the lyrics to a cover of “Dancing on my Own” or “Don’t Kill My Vibe.”

Now, back to Vlad’s character (I could’ve watched a whole movie of him). It’s great how he seems like just a dopey drunk that Violet is using, but he cares about her and gives her great advice on dealing with contracts and TV shows. Yet I found it odd that so many critics wanted to find fault in the lovely movie Green Book, because of a “white savior” character, or the “magic [n-word]” tropes they felt they had to knock. Yet in this movie, I bet they won’t bring up the fact that Vlad plays the funny drunk that we can all just laugh at when he wakes up on a park bench, or rifles through the mini bar in his hotel room. Something we might have chuckled at if it was Dudley Moore or Bill Murray in a movie 30 years ago. Uh…isn’t alcoholism a serious problem that we don’t just laugh at on screen? But yeah…those griping critics of Green Book probably won’t bring that up with this movie, because they have an agenda that makes no sense. The simple fact is — these are movies, folks. If you want to laugh at Vlad because he walks in with an unbuttoned shirt and messy hair, you’re allowed to. That doesn’t mean we think alcoholism isn’t a real problem, we’re just enjoying the characters as they’re presented to us on the screen, which is all a movie is asking you to do.

The bigger problem I have with this film are the flaws in the logic presented. We’re told that Vlad couldn’t possibly be a rapist because if he were going to do it, he would’ve already (uh, did we learn nothing from Michael Jackson and his long seduction process with these kids and their families?).

Also, the record contracts being offered. Rebecca Hall is great as a tough record executive that offers Violet a contract before the competition finishes. It’s implied she has to sign the deal or she’ll have nothing if she doesn’t win. That makes no sense. Last time I checked, Adam Lambert didn’t win American Idol, and pulls in $10 mil a year and is singing for Queen. The runners-up will do just fine, and don’t have to be forced into anything. Not to mention the fact that this girl is 17, so…I’m guessing any contract she signed, signing away all her rights, wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. But hey — they have to give us some dramatic tension, right?

The film was a bit slow in places, and relied a bit too much on techno music (although it perfectly conveyed how a young girl dancing and drinking at a club might look). It’s also a shame that something this derivative is also coming out on a time when the terrific A Star is Born is still fresh on our minds.

This movie reminds me of a hit pop song you hear on the radio. The chorus might be catchy, and you might even catch yourself singing along with it. It has a singer with a good voice, but the lyrics are weak and you forget the song 15 minutes after you heard it. Yet it was entertaining enough while it played.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

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