Elle Fanning climbs the ladder of pop success in Max Minghella's directorial debut

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Pop songs explode from the screen in "Teen Spirit" with an energy the rest of the film can't quite muster.  

The debut film from writer-director Max Minghella, the "Handmaid's Tale" actor and son of "English Patient" director Anthony Minghella, understands the transcendent power of a great pop song, but not how to harness that same energy in storytelling.  

Elle Fanning stars as Violet Valenski, a shy teenager living on the Isle of Wight who sneaks out of the house at night to perform karaoke at a local dive bar. There, she's discovered by Vlad (Zlatko Buric), a washed-up former opera singer who becomes her mentor in the "Teen Spirit" competition, an "American Idol"-style singing contest that seeks to turn undiscovered talents into pop megastars. 

Easy enough. Minghella has a great ear for pop tunes, and he assigns Fanning to sing a goosebump-worthy rendition of Robyn's lonely heart anthem "Dancing On My Own" that sets "Teen Spirit's" engine in motion. Later, a choreography class is set to a thumping instrumental of Katy Perry's "E.T." that has never sounded better. (Interscope Records is a producer on the film, which paved the way for its big time music clearances.) 

Minghella struggles, however, to create a tangible sense of reality around the contest. We've seen enough of these in the real world to know how they work, but the "Teen Spirit" competition's parameters are never believably established, nor do we get the sense that Violet is caught up in the whirlwind surrounding the show.

"Teen Spirit" just wants us to believe that a nobody can be a pop idol. We know that's possible. But it's better to be shown than to be told when a star is born. 

'Teen Spirit'

GRADE: C+

Rated PG-13: for some suggestive content, and for teen drinking and smoking

Running time: 92 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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