Elle Fanning stares into the camera, fresh–faced and doe–eyed. Neon light floods the background. Fanning is the center of attention in both Teen Spirit (2019) and The Neon Demon (2016)—audiences of both are treated to pensive, close–up shots of her unmoving face that are similar in execution, but shockingly different in vision. When compared, Teen Spirit and The Neon Demon can be described in the same way: similar but different, and tied together by a gorgeous performance from Fanning.
In Teen Spirit, a reserved, 17–year–old girl named Violet (Fanning) enters an international singing competition, searching for direction in her small–town life. In The Neon Demon, a 16–year–old orphan named Jesse (Fanning) moves into a motel in Los Angeles to pursue a modeling career. Although they tackle different industries, both movies are rooted in the same premise: Fanning, playing an innocent teenager, yearns for a moment in the spotlight and jumpstarts an A Star Is Born–esque story.
Teen Spirit is sugar–sweet. Settling comfortably into a fairly generic Cinderella story, the movie cashes in on its title and captures a snapshot of wild teen spirit, filled with loud music, tears, and heart–throbbing highs as a young girl pulls herself out of her home and into the world. In Teen Spirit, Fanning embodies the abrasive mood swings of a teenager by bottling up her emotions and inappropriately (and drunkenly) blowing up at the people supporting her, later regretting doing so when she’s clear–headed. Fanning is full of angst, frustration, and joy—she adds an immature yet endearing human element to this movie about approaching and grasping success.
On the other hand, The Neon Demon is a Cinderella story with everything but the innocence. If Teen Spirit is sugar–sweet, The Neon Demon is bitter and caustic. It engages in everything from necrophilia to cannibalism and emerges from a gag–worthy plot devolution in the movie’s finale with a thinly–veiled critique of the modeling industry and society’s material obsession with beauty. In The Neon Demon, Fanning is perfection. She barely steps into the LA modeling world and is immediately shot to the top due to her natural head–turning beauty, which she’s fully aware of. She begins the story clean–faced and innocent, but slowly strips away her facades to reveal an intensely narcissistic, sociopathic inner self that leads to her ultimate demise. Whereas in Teen Spirit, Fanning’s fame and success are worked for and maintained, in The Neon Demon they’re handed to Fanning and short–lived, eventually being ripped from the girl by external sources of jealousy and greed.
Violet and Jesse are drastically different, yet still the same. Young and dumb, immature and emotional, Violet and Jesse share the same flaws that cause the people around them to recoil. Neither character is chatty, and Fanning plays them both mostly cold and stoic, although Violet does warm up to others with time. Violet and Jesse are our two Cinderellas, who each go from rags to riches in her own story. An analysis of their differing paths to success is appropriate, but unnecessary given the obvious tonal difference between Teen Spirit and The Neon Demon: the former adheres to an eventual feel–good teenage fling, while the latter collapses into unnerving shock porn. The two characters’ respective paths to their finales follow the same pattern.
Rather, it’s their similarities to each other that’s more interesting— and that lies in reigning princess herself, Elle Fanning. Fanning is capable of pulling wildly contrasting young female personalities from her characteristically youthful and ethereal demeanor. respite changing very little in terms of physical appearance and facial expression between either film, Fanning portrays the driven Violet and the egotistical Jesse as separated yet interconnected teenage figures. She’s delightful to watch: incredulously happy and angry or subtly dangerous, she stone faces it all, quietly portraying moving pictures of youth. Swathed in neon light, Fanning is our modern Cinderella, creating and destroying success as she wishes.