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'Teen Spirit' at SXSW review: A world made in Robyn's image

Eric Webb

Pop idols, if they're pop-idoling right, should have a touch of the sacred mixed with their various profanities. (There’s a whole comic series about this idea, the excellent “The Wicked and the Divine.”) The film “Teen Spirit,” which made its world premiere Tuesday at South by Southwest, understands this. A picture of Swedish pop deity Robyn adorns the bedroom wall of protagonist Violet, as if it’s a church fresco.

The teenager certainly worships a good verse-chorus-verse more than anything from church, in which her mother wishes she found satisfaction. In one pivotal bedroom-singing sequence, Gwen Stefani, that pillar of '90s girl power, becomes a holy spirit to Violet, who’s just a girl-vessel through which the Power of the Doubtless One flows. And if you’re going to tell a story about the power of pop stardom, you’ll need to invest in lights that make good halos. Director Max Minghella gets it, and that “it” is neon.

Violet, played by the always graceful Elle Fanning as a raw nerve in a track jacket, is a poor girl on the Isle of Wight born to a Polish immigrant. She takes care of farm animals, she works multiple jobs, she fends of taunts from mean girls in athleisure. She also has a voice like a burning bush, and when it crackles out its revelations through a bar-stage cover of a Tegan and Sara deep cut, you understand where that angst comes from. She’s not meant for chicken coops.

A washed-up opera singer (played by Zlatko Buric) who spends more time bottoming out bottles than belting to box seats thinks so, too. When Violet gets the crazy idea to try out for a singing competition called — you guessed it — “Teen Spirit,” he’s more than happy to pose as her guardian-manager. (Mom just wouldn’t understand.) They form a scruffy bond; you cry before the lights come up.

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What transpires in "Teen Spirit" is a tale very much in the vein of “A Star Is Born,” or pretty much any music biopic. The beats are all there, down to the serpentine label boss straight out of the Garden of Eden, offering fame at the price of a soul (Rebecca Hall, playing Simon Cowell through a permanent smile).

Visually, the film borrows a sinister, prismatic page from Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn. A teen-beat party turns into a shadowy, asymmetrical kaleidoscope, all glassy glow and canted angles. The camera stays tight on Fanning with every cringe — if you’ve seen her in “Neon Demon” or “20th Century Women,” you know she’s the current master of the on-screen cringe. When she’s submerged in a swimming pool, though, she’s suddenly a blue angel.

“Teen Spirit,” despite its well-worn arc, still feels like a precious gem. Since this is a music movie, it’s fitting that the tunes reign supreme. Every song feels imbued with meaning, from Grimes’ “Genesis” over the opening credits to Violet’s audition song, “Dancing On My Own.” “I’m right over here,” she sings to a shadowy panel of judges. “Why can’t you see me?” Like Robyn’s heroine in that song, Violet is giving it her all. You’ll feel the spirit.

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