If any cinephiles were begging for a companion piece to director-writer Brady Corbet’s polarizing Vox Lux, Max Minghella may have provided it with his directorial debut, Teen Spirit. Starring Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe and Rebecca Hall, Teen Spirit is a rags-to-riches story involving a teenager with aspirations of becoming a pop star. What’s interesting is that Minghella’s vision turned what would normally be a light teen comedy into a grim drama that looks dirty and cheap rather than stylish and glitzy. Minghella, who served as writer, director and producer, is the son of Sir Anthony Minghella, who’s best known for directing such glacially-paced features as The English Patient and Cold Mountain. So Teen Spirit is proof the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

With that in mind, Teen Spirit is a meditation stressing the value of a strong father-daughter bond over the financial benefits of being a one-dimensional pop star. Fanning is Violet, a quiet teen who lives with her mother Marla (Grochowska). Violet’s father left the family years ago, so both women are left to work in order to afford their home and care for the various livestock residing there. Although young, Violet is already tired of life’s complexities and obstacles and has retreated within herself by remaining quiet and shy. Her only sanctuary is singing and it just so happens a huge singing competition is holding auditions.

Violet is a talented singer but lacks formal training and, with Marla more interested in her daughter concentrating on school and work than pursuing a lofty and near-impossible singing career, Violet turns to Vlad (Buric), a stranger who admires her singing ability (Violet often sneaks out and sings at a small bar in town). The silver lining is Vlad was a celebrated opera singer; his training and experience is invaluable. Vlad agrees to pose as her uncle so Violet can compete, but she must take him on as her manager. The unusual pairing provides more than just a mentor-student dynamic. They share a growing bond which both Violet and Vlad desperately need, whether they know it or not.

There aren’t many young actresses who can sell something as rote as Teen Spirit, but Fanning is one of the few. She’s the biggest reason why this works and she’s showing some range despite being just 21 (compare this muted performance with her precocious and energetic turn in 2011’s We Bought a Zoo). At the same time, Buric is a hidden gem. Although he plays a scruffy looking alcoholic who looks like he hasn’t showered in weeks, his Vlad is a giant teddy bear who thankfully doesn’t come with an agenda. He merely sees Violet as a talented young woman who reminds Vlad of his estranged daughter (which doesn’t go much further than a couple of references). Their chemistry is strong yet unbalanced, but it’s based on mutual admiration and the will to transcend (in Violet’s case) and redeem oneself (Vlad). That’s the foundation for many father-daughter relationships and it’s easy to see their relationship as such.

Despite that winning combination, I found it difficult to get past Teen Spirit's detachment. Minghella’s directorial debut exuded cold vibes that belied the pop music blaring throughout. The singing competition, which was likely inspired by /i>American Idol, is normally associated as lighter in tone, yet Minghella uses that backdrop to warn of the seedy underbelly of pop stardom. The varying themes left Teen Spirit without an identity, whereas the filial storyline and lighter tone would've meant a more focused film and a greater chance to win over viewers.

Overall, this is a fine first effort from Max Minghella. Minghella also acts; you may remember him as Divya Narendra, friend of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. He has talent as a director, although I don’t believe his tonal choice worked. Still, Teen Spirit is watchable as it covers interesting themes, highlights catchy pop tunes and provides an excellent performance from Elle Fanning.

3 stars out of 5

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