Teen Spirit, which arrives in theaters on April 12, will be Elle Fanning’s 55th credited role since she began acting professionally in 2001. If you’re a fan of crunching the numbers, then you’ll probably love knowing that that means Fanning officially has more than double the amount of acting credits than she does years under her belt. At 21, Fanning has more than established herself, becoming an actor notable and appreciated for her nuanced performances. She is an actor gifted with playing the subtext, with conveying meaning without speaking, with the right instincts to elevate a performance into something memorable.
As with her previous roles, there should be no doubts about Fanning doing this once again in actor Max Minghella’s directorial debut, Teen Spirit. In the film, Fanning plays Violet, a young Englishwoman stuck in her small town, living out the doldrums as a waitress until she has the chance to audition for a singing competition reality show. Turns out, Violet actually has what it takes to go the distance. As Violet progresses in the competition, she not only has to grapple with the effects of instant fame, but she has to wrap her head around the possibility of taking her life in a direction she once could only dream of as a singer.
But before we rush to the theaters to see Fanning sing, dance, and act her way through Teen Spirit, let’s look back at seven essential performances from her résumé that form the blueprint of Fanning as we know her today: an actor with an impressive and enviable range.
1. Phoebe In Wonderland (2008)
Fanning had already been acting for nine years when Phoebe in Wonderland came along. But this performance, along with performances turned in in earlier films like Babel, arguably earned the attention of critics as performances worthy of getting Fanning out of the child actor ranks and into consideration for meatier roles in bigger films. Phoebe in Wonderland follows an elementary-age girl, Phoebe, who is living with Tourette syndrome. While her parents attempt to help her through therapy and medication, her drama teacher at school sees a way to help Phoebe by casting her in the school play, which ultimately has a therapeutic effect on her.
Asking a nine-year-old to depict life with a syndrome that is as tough and demanding as Tourette’s is monumental, so it comes as no surprise that she got the world’s attention through this performance. Watching Fanning perform a child living with this syndrome while still being reminded at every that she is a child is astounding. But this performance also makes it clear that Fanning is capable of taking on so much more as an actor than you might have thought possible — a theme that runs through her career to this day.
2. Somewhere (2010)
In her first collaboration with Sofia Coppola, Fanning’s performance in 2010’s Somewhere makes clear that there is a joy, a lightness, and an inherent innocence to Fanning that captivates. Somewhere depicts the relationship between a handsome, aging actor and his tween daughter, played by Fanning, when she comes for an unexpected visit. Her arrival causes the actor to reassess his life, which he lives hard, fast, and in complete excess thanks to the nature of being famous.
Fanning is still playing innocent, vulnerable young girl but we also get the sense that Fanning understands it’s on her to play a young woman who knows and understands a lot more than she lets on. She navigates depicting a young woman forced, at times, to be more mature than she should be, making Fanning’s performance both tender and stirring to watch.
3. Ginger & Rosa (2012)
Ginger & Rosa marks the first time Fanning has to go British for a role (this has become familiar territory for her in recent years) as she also takes on one of her first clearly adult roles, despite being 14 years old at the time. Ginger & Rosa tells the story of two female friends growing up in England in the mid-’60s. As the friends explore new political ideologies, trade clothes as well as secrets and spend nearly every minute together, the strength of their friendship is thrown into question when one of them enters into a romantic relationship with the other’s father.
With the character of Ginger, Fanning shows the world she’s ready to tackle thornier roles. There is an adaptability and capability shown in Fanning through this role which indicates she can rise to the demands of juggling adult situations with the innocence, candor, or fleeting toughness that is unique to teenage girls. Fanning’s honesty in showing Ginger’s pain at her friend’s betrayal while also remaining so open and available when a scene demands it is, simply put, deft.
4. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is tough to watch, not only because it risks veering into exploitation from minute one, but because it gives its lead, Jesse (played by Fanning) simultaneously so much to do and so little to say, begging the question of whether we should like, loathe, or just plain worry about Jesse at every turn; who is she, really?
But even with a performance so heavily reliant on showing, not telling, Fanning rises to the challenge easily. Playing a beautiful young woman with a deceptive streak looking to break into the world of modeling in Los Angeles might feel like a thankless role, but Fanning gets to deploy one of her best tools as an actor: her face and her body. That’s not meant to be gross, either, but is instead evidence that even when Fanning isn’t monologuing (not like she gets that chance here), she can deliver a look or move through the frame in a way that makes you want to watch or know more to see if you can understand her intentions and, by turns, Jesse’s intentions, too.
5. 20th Century Women (2016)
Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women follows a teenage boy, Jamie, coming of age in 1979 California, guided by his liberal mother and two young women. As the film unpacks issues around women’s sexual health, mental health, relationships with men, and their relationships to themselves and the world around them, 20th Century Women becomes less about a teen boy’s need to grow up and more about these women undergoing an immense transformation at different stages in their lives.
Fanning portrays Julie, the teenage friend of Jamie who is simultaneously dealing with the highs and lows of discovering her sexuality, navigating a complex friendship with Jamie, discovering her own boundaries, and trying to decide what kind of woman she wants to be. Considering Fanning is around the same age in real life that Julie is, Fanning gives the impression of deep investment in conveying the hormonal turbulence Julie is experiencing. Whether it’s agonizing over the results of a home pregnancy test or telling a table full of strangers about the first time she had sex, there is a rawness and honesty that emanates from Julie that it seems only Fanning is properly equipped to depict.
6. The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake of 1971’s The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, sought to amplify the tension and sexual repression that arises when a Union soldier finds safe haven at a Southern boarding school for young girls during the Civil War. As every woman finds themselves in some way attracted to the soldier, alliances shift amongst the women and complications arise as the soldier begins to exploit their feelings for his own gain.
Fanning gets to stretch her legs a little in Coppola’s version playing older teen Alicia, tapping into a mischevious, more sexually empowered and confident young woman than we’ve seen her in roles past. She is mostly seen in the background, as part of the group rather than getting the spotlight. But make no mistake: Fanning is exercising a control and command of the screen that makes her the instant focus of any scene she is in. She sinks her teeth into playing a young woman in charge of her self, assured in her allure, and it translates brilliantly onto the screen.
7. Mary Shelley
In many ways, Mary Shelley plays as a fairly straightforward, focused, biopic-lite that tracks Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s transition from being the rebellious, outspoken bookworm daughter of feminist and author Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin to a young woman who comes into her own power through the creation of a massively popular novel and the complications that arise when you happen to become more famous than your rockstar poet of a husband (in Shelley’s case, that was poet Percy Bysshe Shelley).
As Shelley, Fanning taps into a soulful quality that is part of her essence as an actor, conveying so much in the way of vulnerability as well as a strong sense of self. She is able to portray Mary’s coming-of-age journey as well as Mary’s intelligence and desire for a life that extends beyond rigid 19th-century rules in such a way that it makes you want to keep watching.
Get your tickets for Teen Spirit here and watch it when it arrives in theaters on April 12.