As I settled in to the comfortable and predictable and consistently infectious rhythms of “Teen Spirit,” I thought:
This is such a neat and fresh reboot of “The Karate Kid”!
Not that writer-director Max Minghella’s endearing, cotton-candy-light confection of a film is actually based on the “The Karate Kid.” I mean, it’s certainly set in a very different world.
And yet …
• In “The Karate Kid,” Daniel LaRusso is a sensitive American teenager living with his financially struggling mother — dad is out of the picture — and is bullied by some pretty-boy jerks. Daniel finds an unlikely mentor/father figure in Mr. Miyagi, a seemingly inconsequential man who just happens to be a martial arts master, which is PERFECT because Daniel wants to enter a big karate tournament.
Against all odds and facing far more experienced competition, Daniel keeps advancing. Can he win it all? We sure hope so! We love this kid and we’re right there in his corner!
• In “Teen Spirit,” Violet (Elle Fanning) is a sensitive British teenager living with her financially struggling Polish immigrant mother (Agnieszka Grochowska) — dad is out of the picture — and is mocked by some pretty-girl jerkettes. Violet finds an unlikely mentor/father figure in Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a seemingly inconsequential man who just happens to be a former Croatian opera star, which is PERFECT because Violet has dreams of winning a big teen-singer competition.
Against all odds and facing far more experienced competition, Violet keeps advancing. Can she win it all? We sure hope so! We love this kid and we’re right there in her corner!
Even before Violet signs up to audition for a British pop show called “Teen Spirit,” Minghella (an actor himself and the son of the late director Anthony Minghella of “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” et al.) and cinematographer Autumn Durald Arkapaw give her the star treatment. Whether Violet is doing chores, singing in the church choir, dancing in her bedroom or awkwardly navigating a party like the yet-to-blossom heroine in a John Hughes film, it often feels as if we’re watching a commercial or a music video about a lovely and sweet and endearing and sincere dreamer.
In fact, “Teen Spirit” is so enamored with Violet, it’s as if Minghella didn’t have the heart to create a truly formidable and hiss-worthy villain. Sure, Violet crosses paths with some folks who might not have her best interests at heart — but none of them is much more threatening than an antagonist on a Disney Channel show.
Still, even without the equivalent of a Cobra Kai to root against, “Teen Spirit” isn’t shy about tugging at our heartstrings on multiple fronts. Tears are shed. Hugs are hugged. Songs are more than just songs.
Minghella does a fine job of capturing the essence of the 21st century talent competition show and all its corny, addictive allure.
Fanning does her own vocals, and while there’s nothing particularly unique about her sound, she’s quite good — definitely good enough to make us believe her as a bona fide contender on a show such as “Teen Spirit.”
And as we’ve learned from Daniel LaRusso and a host of other underdogs in any manner of competitions, it’s not impossible for heart to triumph over technique.
Bleecker Street presents a film written and directed by Max Minghella. Rated PG-13 (for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking). Running time: 92 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.