Movie reviews: 'Teen Spirit' has universal messages for all who ever dreamed a dream
Richard Crouse, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, April 18, 2019 9:14AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 18, 2019 10:28AM EDT
TEEN SPIRIT: 3 ½ STARS
"Teen Spirit," a new musical drama starring Elle Fanning, sets the authentic story of hopes and dreams against the artificial backdrop of a televised singing competition.
Fanning plays Violet, an Isle of Wight teen who works in a pub, goes to school and spends weekends selling produce from her family‘s farm at a local market. She can also sing like a popstar and often sneaks into town to perform at a local open mic because her strict mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) doesn’t approve. "Do you want to sing? You have the choir. What better audience than the Lord himself?" Drawn to the more secular pleasures of "I’m Just a Girl" by Gwen Stefani, she has dreams beyond singing in church.
When a dayglo ad for an "American Idol" style talent show called "Teen Spirit" (Sing Your Heart Out!) catches her eye she signs up for the cattle call audition. Making it through the first round — after singing and dancing à la Britney — she’s told she’ll need a guardian if she is to continue. Asking her mother is out of the question so she approaches Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a local man, who happens to be a former opera singer, to pose as her uncle and sign her into the competition. He agrees but says, "If you win I’ll be your manager."
Electro-pop isn’t his gig, but he teaches her stagecraft, how to breathe and to sing from the heart. At her next try out Jules (Rebecca Hall), a Simon Cowell type in haute couture, tells her, "You have a nice voice. You have to work on everything else." With Vlad and the help of a local bar band she tunes up for the big show but, thrown into the fast-paced world of television and music, will all the newfound attention go to her head? "You’re a caterpillar," Jules says. "We are a cocoon. Maybe together we can make a butterfly."
"Teen Spirit" is a "Flashdance"-style underdog story (you even hear a snippet of the famous Irene Cara song on the soundtrack) set in a familiar milieu. In his directorial debut Max Minghella keeps the rise (there is no fall) story simple — it’s like an elaborate performer bio segment on "American Idol" and the like — but the characters are not.
Violet blooms over the snappy ninety-minute running time. From shy girl to confident performer, her character has an arc on and off stage. On stage by the time she delivers a blistering version of Robyn’s "Dancing on My Own" there is no doubt she has learned to sing from the heart. Just as interesting is her off stage behaviour as she learns to trust her instincts and realize her dreams. Fanning is wonderful, she can sing but also gives vivid life to all of Violet’s aspirations and desires. Buric and Grochowska hand in heartfelt performances but it is Fanning who keeps this movie’s heart beating.
"Teen Spirit" is not a searing expose of the music business. It’s a specific story, set within the music business, that has universal messages for anyone who has ever dreamed a dream.
PENGUINS: 4 ½ STARS
There is an undeniable joy that comes with watching hundreds of thousands of Adélie penguins waddling, à la Charlie Chaplin, toward their Antarctic nesting grounds. "Penguins," a new Disneynature documentary directed by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson, plays up the cute factor but maintains the educational component.
Antarctica. Half the year of the sun does not rise. It is the coldest, windiest place on the planet and it’s here the story takes place. Every spring hordes of Adélie penguins make their way across the frozen landscape seeking dryland to start families. We follow the story of Steve, a five-year-old penguin making his first solo trip across the tundra to find a mate and establish a home to raise chicks. The journey is dangerous and obstacle filled but with dogged (and yes, cute) determination Steve makes it to the breeding ground, takes part in turf wars for a prime spot and searches for dry rocks necessary to build a proper nest.
Nest constructed, Steve meets his intended, a female penguin named Adeline. Serenaded by 1980s soft rock on the soundtrack the pair get to know one another. We learn they memorize one another’s voice for easy identification later because, let’s face it, they all look pretty much the same. It’s not "Romeo and Juliet" but they do make an adorable couple and soon babies are born. We’re then given penguin parenting tips, Antarctica Adélie style, like how the chicks eat regurgitated fish directly from their parent’s mouths.
There is a hint of the circle-of-life as predatory birds and leopard seals prey on the penguins but there is nothing as shocking as walruses falling off cliffs in the Netflix doc "Our Planet." It’s very kid friendly topped with amiable, light-hearted narration courtesy of comedic actor Ed Helms.
The film’s main strength — aside from the penguins — is the beautiful photography. Fothergill and Wilson capture the icy vastness of Antarctica, giving us gorgeous landscape views and up-close-and-personal shots of the penguins. Visuals of Steve and thousands of his penguin pals swimming like dolphins in the icy water are eye-popping, almost like synchronized swimming.
"Penguins" misses the chance to make a statement about global warming. Instead it focusses on the resilience of these remarkable, and cute, don’t forget cute, creatures.
HIGH LIFE: 2 STARS
There will be some debate as to whether or not "High Life," a new space opera from director Claire Denis, can be classified as sci fi or not. It takes place on a starship, is set in the outer reaches of the solar system and features other sci fi faves like black holes and space stations but the setting almost takes a back seat to the very earth-bound humanity on display.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, one of a group of death row convicts sent on a suicide mission to deep space aboard a space station. When we first meet Monte he’s alone save for his infant daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). Soon, via flashbacks, we learn more about the situation, the social breakdown with the other passengers and Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the supervising doctor who performs sexual experiments on the crew, as the space station hurtles toward the abyss of a giant black hole.
There are certainly sci fi aspects to "High Life" but all the molecular clouds and the spacey instances of spaghettification (look it up), etc are trumped by, I want to say drama, but that’s not quite accurate. There isn’t much drama to be milked from a story where the characters are in lock down with little or no room for growth. There are some good performances here, particularly from Pattinson as a man who survives through discipline, and Binoche whose cold, clinical obsession to create new life borders on the sadistic, but the film is more about creating atmosphere than forming dramatic moments.
Denis is unafraid to linger on a moment, to allow the incremental passing of time aboard the ship to be reflected in the film’s pacing. Sometimes it works, offering a glimpse into the mundane lives of people for whom there is no future, but often it feels as though time has stood still and not in a good way. Add to that pages of whispered expository dialogue and you’re left with a film that maintains a sense of hope that Monte and Willow will be OK but doesn’t give us much of a reason to care what happens to them.