There have been plenty of cute-kids-competing docus of late, including notable hits “Mad Hot Ballroom” and “Spellbound.” Still, “Sounds Like Teen Spirit” delights afresh, not only because its kids are (surprise!) so cute, but because the competition in question — the Junior Eurovision Song Contest — is unbeatably, garishly colorful. Treated with just the right mix of affection and amusement sans condescension by debuting helmer Jamie J. Johnson, this irresistible crowdpleaser will be a sought-after fest item sure to score theatrical and broadcast sales in relevant EU countries and beyond.After a brief, cheeky recap of the adult Eurovision contest (1974 Abba breakout included) and modern European history in general, the pic hones in on the chosen protags among the junior competitors of 2007, ages 10-15. Most are from comfortable backgrounds, an exception being big-voiced Mariam Romelashvili from Georgia. She’s also the sole contestant here whose participation is a matter of real national pride for her (currently embattled) country, and who doesn’t yet speak fluent English. By contrast, Cyprian Yiorgos Ioannides — a pint-sized George-Michael-cum-Tom-Jones belter — endures teasing at school for his showbiz aspirations. Singer-songwriter Marina Baltadzi is safely ensconced in Bulgarian tween-girl group Bon-Bon, while the slightly older members of Belgian quartet Trust are wryly amused by the event’s general air of pubescent hysteria. Each act got this far by triumphing over some 14,000 annual entrants in regional eliminations, from Sweden to Serbia. Glitzy climactic broadcast is shot live before a Rotterdam stadium audience of 6,000, with hosts as unctuous (“I’m pissing my pants with excitement!” one gushes, presumably un-ironically) as any Stateside reality-show emcees. There’s major kitsch value in most of the performances, which tend to ape anthemic-contempo-pop cliches, complete with gaudy costumes and choreography redolent of high 1980s New Wave/spandex tackiness. But the earnest creative naivete is endearing, the personalities even moreso. Refreshingly, there’s no evidence of parental pushing; for better or worse, these kids seem propelled by their own ambition. Such likable protags are easy to root for, whether their talents suggest viable adult careers or not. Johnson (who provides funny occasional narration) charts their thrills of victory and agonies of defeat in a package that’s razor-sharp in all editorial, lensing and soundtrack choices. Sum effect is delightful.
A U.K. Film Council presentation, in association with Aramid Entertainment, of an Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Number 9 Films production, in association with Audley Films. (International sales: Intandem Films, London.) Produced by Karlsen, Woolley. Executive producers, Jess Search, Maxyne Franklin, Simon Fawcett, Paul White. Co-producer, Kate Lawrence. Directed by Jamie J. Johnson.
Camera (color, HD), Johnson; editor, Lucien Clayton; music, Mat Davidson; sound (Dolby Digital), Scott Jones, Stefano Marchetti. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 10, 2008. Running time: 89 MIN.
Marina Baltadzi, Yiorgos Ioannides, Mariam Romelashvili, Mirek Coutigny, Laurens Platteeuw, Matthieu Renier, Eva Storme, Babs Buelens. (English, Flemish, Bulgarian, Georgian, Cypriot Greek dialogue)