Movie Review: ‘Teen Spirit’ is a Sublime Musical Journey for Elle Fanning and for Us, the Audience

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Starring: Elle Fanning, Zlatko Burić, Agnieszka Grochowska, Rebecca Hall

Director: Max Minghella

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for A Little Bit of Drunkenness

Release Date: April 12, 2019 (Limited)

Does watching Elle Fanning sing her heart out to Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” sound appealing to you? Because, let me tell you something: when I witnessed that moment happening in Teen SpiritI was absolutely spellbound. Now, this is an actress I have enjoyed for quite some time, but with this performance, she has transported me to a realm of cinematic satisfaction that I was not fully prepared for. She plays Violet Valenski, an English teenager of Polish descent who makes her way from a tiny town on the Isle of Wight into the glitz and blinding neon of the titular reality singing competition.

I don’t know if Teen Spirit is the name of an actual British reality show or not, but it doesn’t matter, as it might as well be called “Generic Singing Contest.” The plot is thin and predictable, but that’s not a big deal. First-time feature director Max Minghella (probably best known as Nick on The Handmaid’s Tale) is more concerned about capturing the emotion of the moment. That is the approach typically employed with music videos, but what works over four or five minutes can be difficult to stretch out after ninety. But Minghella has pulled it off, with his camera often focusing on emotionally intense close-ups and fluid bodily movements. One standout scene features Violet letting loose in her bedroom, inviting everyone into the transcendence that can be experienced by just plugging into the music.

Joining Violet on her journey is Vlad (Zlatko Burić), an aging opera singer enamored by her star quality who decides that he simply must be her manager. This could so easily be a character who is plotting to take advantage of our protagonist in any number of ways. But instead, he just wants to see her triumph, and he has some well-earned wisdom to offer for how she might go about succeeding. It’s always lovely when you’re watching a movie and suspecting the worst but instead you see a whole village having the main character’s back. Is global superstardom in Violet’s future? Perhaps, but what’s important now is that she has busted out enough of what she feels deep inside herself to share that joy with a grateful audience.

Teen Spirit is Recommended If You Like: Sing Street, Bye Bye Birdie, The music of Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Tegan & Sara

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Explosive Choruses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Leap!’ Can Only Inspire Aspiring Ballerinas If They’re Unfamiliar with the Uncanny Valley

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2017.

Starring: Elle Fanning, Nat Wolff, Carly Rae Jepsen, Maddie Ziegler, Kate McKinnon, Mel Brooks

Directors: Éric Summer and Éric Warin

Running Time: 89 Minutes

Rating: PG for Lightly Disturbing Stage Motherhood

Release Date: August 25, 2017

Hey guys, I know there are a lot of terrible things going on in the world that we need to be worried about, but there is yet one more thing I need to alert you about. Apparently the French are not so keen about orphans joining their prestigious ballet companies. Luckily, an animated movie now exists to inspire aspiring ballerinas to keep their heads up no matter where they are from! That movie is Leap!, but alas, its cookie-cutter CG animation, far from inspirational itself, is instead liable to call to mind the most bizarre cartoon you only discover in your most desperate Netflix binges. Oh well, at least it gives us an excuse to start a campaign to get Carly Rae Jepsen a Best Original Song Oscar.

The plot is the same as any inspirational animated kids movie: a misfit tries to sneak her way into the big time, where she must withstand the arrogance of the gatekeepers and the ruthlessness of her rivals, but she stands just enough of a chance for success, thanks to her own boundless gumption and a somewhat mysterious mentor figure who finds the room in her heart to train her. The whole affair is kind-spirited enough that even the most morally lacking characters in the ballet world are easily redeemed by the end. If you are an aspiring ballerina yourself, or have one in your life, you may derive value from watching Leap! For everyone else, the whole endeavor may be too disorienting to have any demonstrable results.

Leap! is an international co-production with two French directors, and accordingly it often has a vibe of being lost in translation. Characters respond to each other with lines that do not quite make sense. Dialogue is often offscreen, frequently resulting in a weird sensation in which the words sound simultaneously nearby and far away. These are the sorts of uncanny valley effects that slightly subpar CG animation always runs the risk of featuring. At least the conclusion is a satisfying reprieve from all that: as Jepsen’s sublimely buoyant “Cut to the Feeling” cuts in during the credits, it is like a marvelous return to the real world.

Leap! is Recommended If You Like: Ice Princess, Hallucinating from Inexplicably Weird Animation, Carly Rae Jepsen completism

Grade: 2.25 out of 5 Depressed Elephants

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Beguiled’ Proves Sofia Coppola Still Knows How to Weave a Spell

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This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning

Director: Sofia Coppola

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Natural, Untamed Sexuality

Release Date: June 23, 2017 (Limited)

Comparing films unfavorably to sitcoms is a useful technique in the critic’s arsenal. It is typically applied to movies set in the present day that features characters just hanging out, with few, if any, aspirations beyond that. It is rarely, if ever, applied to films that take place 100 or more years ago. Part of that is because television did not exist then, so the comparison would not make much sense. But it is also perhaps because if a period piece were to achieve a sitcom-esque vibe, it would actually be praiseworthy instead of ill-advised. Weirdly enough, this is how I found myself thinking while watching Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which achieves that sitcom vibe in its quieter moments, which are plenty.

It is not just the characters who are beguiled, but also the audience, as the premise is not one obviously ripe for humor, at least not of the good-natured variety. Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan (previously adapted into a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood), The Beguiled tracks the volatility of human behavior in a small corner of a world that has fallen out of its natural order. Set during the Civil War, the film finds injured Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) discovered by the residents of a Southern girls’ boarding school. They debate whether to give him up to passing Confederate soldiers or provide him shelter out of the kindness of their hearts. They choose to let him stay, though it is never fully clear why. The firm, but ultimately vague stance from headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) sets the tone for the tension that permeates the rest of the film.

The sitcom vibes shine strongest in the middle stretch when the ladies and McBurney have brokered a peace, forming the premise for a show that would be titled something like The Southern Belles and the Yankee Soldier or Everybody Lusts Burnie. But like so many sitcoms, there is a layer of psychopathy or some other propensity for violence lurking just beneath the charm and just rearing to burst out. On TV, it usually never comes to that, at least not to the point of no return. But The Beguiled is all about exploring the scariest implications of a national house divided against itself crossed with burgeoning and repressed sexuality. It is as combustible as it sounds. The passionate ways of nature can be tamped down only so much by human control, and each cast member has their own beguiling and beguiled way of summoning their most passionate whims to demonstrate why that is.

The Beguiled is Recommended If You Like: Cold Mountain, Interpersonal gender dynamics, Double Indemnity

Grade: 4 out of 5 Mushrooms

This Is a Movie Review: Transgender Rights and Family Drama Fuel the Ho-Hum ‘3 Generations’

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This review was originally published on News Cult in May 2017.

Starring: Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, Susan Sarandon, Tate Donovan

Director: Gaby Dellal

Running Time: 92 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Facts of Life

Release Date: May 5, 2017 (Limited)

It is great when the stories of minority and discriminated groups are portrayed on the big screen, as they are granted greater visibility via the transportive power of cinema. But it is not so great when those stories are boring, because then the experience is less transportive. Teenage Ray (Elle Fanning) is a transgender male hoping to quickly start his gender reassignment treatment, and the reason this film is entitled “3 Generations” as opposed to something like “Ray’s Story” is because it is really about his relationship with his single mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon), whom he lives with together inManhattan. These are three talented ladies, and none of them phone it in, but ultimately 3 Generations feels like little more than spending a couple of hours with a family other than your own.

Teenage transgender transition stories offer the reliable dramatic hook of attempting to secure parental permission. Ray’s decision must be approved by both his mother and long-absentee father Craig (Tate Donovan). And therein lies the rub, as Maggie and Craig are not exactly on good terms, to put it mildly. It is enough to make you scream. Ray certainly does. Donovan is a captivating screen presence, and he has the necessary anti-chemistry with Watts, but again this mostly boils down to: families of transgender people can be just as dysfunctional as everyone else’s.

A constant source of tension for Ray is his grandmother’s difficulty accepting his identity. Dolly is far from conservative. She is a lesbian, but just because your sexuality is not mainstream does not mean you cannot also be closed-minded. There is an edge to Ray and Dolly’s interactions that is unavoidable, but also fascinating. A version of 3 Generations pared down to grandmother/grandson buddy comedy could be a winning formula. The obligations of familial love can be in a constant battle with the plague of misunderstanding/ I think that is the valiant thesis of this film, but it struggles to put its own spin on that age-old conundrum.

3 Generations is Recommended If You Like: The Kids Are All Right, Being an Elle Fanning Completist

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Fire Escapes

This Is a Movie Review: 20th Century Women

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20th-century-women-cast

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Annette Bening, Lucas Jade Zumann, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup

Director: Mike Mills

Running Time: 118 Minutes

Rating: R for Frankness When It Comes to Sexuality and Drug Use

Release Date: December 28, 2016 (Limited)

In this semi-autobiographical effort from writer/director Mike Mills (Beginners, Thumbsucker), Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mom struggling to raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) by herself in 1970s Southern California. The idea that she is struggling mostly comes from her own neurotic self. But regardless of how accurate her worries are, she decides to enlist the help of some of the women in her life in the making of Jamie into a man. Her cadre includes Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a wayward boarder at Dorothea’s house, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a plainly independent teenager prone to sneaking into Jamie’s bedroom (but not doing much else once she gets there). Also on hand is the rugged and sensitive William (Billy Crudup), another boarder.

Your appreciation of 20th Century Women will likely depend on how much you can relate to this living situation, whether via experience or imagination. For me personally, I could not connect with it too deeply because I found the relationships between the main characters ever-so-slightly off-putting. They do not lack for affection, and they are thoroughly observed, but they are uncomfortable in a way that makes this film easier to merely appreciate rather than embrace.

There are a couple elements that I do want to praise without qualification. The film often evokes a dreamy, hazy quality that evokes the liberal atmosphere of the time. Splashes of vibrant color are strewn across the screen, and montages of major incidents ramp up the intensity via manipulation-of-time editing techniques. Then there is the dinner scene, in which everyone in attendance suddenly finds themselves tasked with teaching Jamie the proper way to sexually please a woman. Crudup delivers a soon-to-be-classic line of sage wisdom on that topic (don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to be spoiled), and those who see 20th Century Women will never be the same again.

20th Century Women is Recommended If You Like: Beginners, The Kids Are All Right

Grade: 3 out of 5 Billowy Shirts