A three-minute pop song can provide an eternity of happiness, and a 90-minute movie can feel as brief as a finger snap. But writer-director Max Minghella’s U.K.-set fairy tale “Teen Spirit” — which takes Elle Fanning’s lonely immigrant adolescent from karaoke dreams to singing contest heights — is somewhere between feeling abbreviated and wearing out its welcome.
When teased outsider Violet (Fanning) isn’t scowling at classmates, blissed-out in earbud reverie, or working to keep herself and her religious Polish mom (Agnieszka Grochowska) out of poverty, she’s singing to sparse crowds at the local pub with only boozy, has-been Russian opera star Vlad (Zlatko Burić) as her one fan.
Violet enlists Vlad to help her navigate auditions for a televised singing competition, and the mix of stardom-seeking saga and unlikely-duo drama provides plenty of spark: Fanning and Burić nail the chemistry of outcasts awakened, driven by redemption, but also attuned to the volatility of blending the talent and ego needed to make it. And though the many aggressively stylish montages threaten to leech true emotion from Violet’s performances, Fanning still sells that in-the-zone edge true believers feel when the mike is theirs.
It’s when the action shifts to showtime in London, however, and Rebecca Hall enters as a crafty competition judge, that you feel the movie trading its prickly-sweet humanity for regimented obstacles and shallow glitz. And with all the visuals aggressively backlit, practically erasing actors’ features, “Teen Spirit” really sacrifices its chance to wed pop performance’s flash and thrash with the soulful nuances of a nervy fairy tale.
Rated: PG-13, for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes