Fanning’s required to play a part that we’ve seen countless times before in movies, literature, television, and every other form of storytelling – the young, naïve, fish-out-of-water girl thrust into an environment where she’s suddenly asked to become (or at least believe she’s become) something maybe she’s not, something bigger, sexier, and sophisticated. It’s not as simple as taking off Jesse’s glasses and having her lose her ponytail; it’s a transformation from the inside out and one that is vital to the success of the movie.
“You’re going to be great.”
“That whole deer-in-the-headlights thing is exactly what they want.”
One of the things I admire most about this performance is Fanning’s ability to throw off the audience just enough in terms of how naïve she may really be. She’s playing a 16-year old girl from out of town, moving to Los Angles by herself and propelled into a bizarre world of superficiality that appears to be in contrast with who she is and where she’s from. Fanning, however, while playing the part in the earliest moments of the movie as someone in need of direction and help, also manages to show signs of a confidence that might suggest she’s not as innocent as we believe. There’s enough hint of mystery behind her eyes, that Jesse becomes super-compelling. Characters throughout the film, from the casting agent to the famous photographer to the even more famous fashion designer, are drawn to Jesse and see something special in her that separates her from the pack. It’s not just that Jesse is a pretty girl; they see pretty girls all day. What they see in Jesse is something not tangible, but rather something special behind the surface, and not always obvious to the audience. In front of the very people that could make or break her career, Fanning manages to walk the fine line between "ah shucks" and fierce. She’s being led this way and that, but owning it once she gets there. Is she aware of what she’s doing ahead of time or is she following orders? I’m not sure that it’s ever answered, but Fanning displays a strength at times that seems anything but learned – it’s who she is and she knows how to use it.
When people talk positively about The Neon Demon, it’s usually in regards to the aesthetics and the Cliff Martinez score. And while the visuals and music are brilliant and should be discussed and dissected until the end of time, Elle Fanning’s portrayal of Jesse is one for the ages and deserves a spot alongside NWR and Cliff Martinez.