Film Review: The Runaways

by Jason LeRoy on March 19, 2010

Photo courtesy of Apparition Films

“This isn’t about women’s lib,” crows Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) in The Runaways, the feature-length debut from renowned music video director Floria Sigismondi. “This is about women’s libidos.” See what he did there? But this quote gets to the paradoxical high-wire act at the heart of this film: lib or libido? Empowerment or exploitation? A film that opens with a close-up of Dakota Fanning’s first drops of menstrual blood hitting the L.A. pavement could go either way.

Fanning plays the enigmatic Cherie Currie, just another disaffected glam-loving teenager until she was handpicked by “eccentric” music impresario Kim Fowley to be the lead singer of The Runaways, the all-girl jailbait rock band he’d assembled with Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). This film was adapted by Sigismondi from Cherie’s memoir, Neon Angel, so she is positioned as the protagonist; Jett, who co-produced the film, is also a strong presence, as is Fowley.

Sandy West, who succumbed to cancer in 2006, is sweetly portrayed by Stella Maeve (Transamerica). Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton, best-known as the lead in Rob Zombie’s Halloween films) did not grant the filmmakers her life rights, so her part mainly consists of bellowing ferociously at anyone pissing her off. And Jackie Fox is now a Harvard-educated lawyer who scared the filmmakers enough to completely write her out of the film, replacing her with a fictional character named Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat, so brilliant in Arrested Development and Whip It, wasted in a purely decorative and virtually wordless role). So ultimately, this is a film about Currie and Jett.

The film is evocative and sporadically effective, but never quite transcends its Behind the Music formula. Sigismondi’s uninspired script seems to deserve the lion’s share of the blame, saddling the actors with wretched dialogue and one clichéd set-up after another. Despite the enjoyably perverse opening sequence of Currie getting her first period on the side of the road with her twin sister, Marie (Riley Keough, daughter of Lisa Marie Presley, in a quietly heartbreaking and sympathetic performance reminiscent of Abbie Cornish), it soon settles into extremely well-worn territory.

Cherie gets booed and pelted with trash at a school talent show for lip-synching a David Bowie song. They don’t get it! Joan is told “girls don’t play electric guitar” by a smug guitar teacher. She’ll show him! Cherie sits alone with her birthday cake because her flighty mother (Tatum O’Neal!) is off with her boyfriend and her alcoholic father won’t stop drinking long enough to come home. But where will she find affirmation? Joan wants to start a band, but no one will give her a chance because she’s a glue-sniffing teenage girl. Sexists!

Obviously it’s just a matter of time before these two outsiders are introduced, courtesy of record producer/Sunset Strip fixture Kim Fowley (portrayed by Oscar nominee Michael Shannon as a screeching, grotesque buffoon). Joan first approaches him outside Rodney Bingenheimer’s and says she wants to form an all-female band. Fowley promptly introduces her to drummer Sandy West, and the two hit it right off. Eventually they pick up Lita Ford on guitar and “Robin Robbins” on bass, but Fowley thinks something is missing — namely, a hot blonde frontwoman.

Enter Currie, who apparently spends most of her free time leaning on a wall in Bingenheimer’s, pouting in full Aladdin Sane drag next to half-finished bottles of Mountain Dew. Sure enough, she is spotted by Fowley, who sees her as a combination of Brigitte Bardot and Iggy Pop. Fowley and Jett recruit Currie to audition at one of their band practices (which are held in a cramped trailer), but when Currie shows up, she is turned off by the overtly explicit and sexual nature of Fowley’s vision for the band. But eventually she acquiesces and, almost reluctantly, becomes the lead singer.

Which brings us to one of the film’s main problems: Dakota Fanning is fundamentally miscast as Cherie. I admire her desire to break out of her child-star mold by playing such a provocative role, and she tackles the sex and the drugs and the girl-on-girl action without hesitation. She also nails the centerpiece performance of “Cherry Bomb” with electrifying bravado.

Unfortunately, this is the exception. For the vast majority of the film, Fanning plays Currie as a quiet, distant, chilly young woman who never seems to connect with anything around her. As an actress, Fanning is entirely too mannered, controlled, and poised to play such a wild card. When people look at Fanning’s Currie and say, “You look like you could kick the shit out of me!” or “What a firebomb!”, it’s nearly as laughable as when people compliment Nomi’s dancing ability in Showgirls. A more obvious casting choice for this role would have been Taylor Momsen from Gossip Girl. And yet, despite her limitations, Fanning still leaves an impression. The sadness and emptiness in her blue eyes will stay with you.

Which brings me to another point: shouldn’t a film about a teenage punk band feel a little bit more fun? And by “a little bit,” I mean, like, at all? As depicted by The Runaways, these girls’ lives were one moment of suffering after another. It jumps directly from the misery of trying to make it to the misery of being too famous with nothing but an oh-so-familiar montage of newspaper headlines to indicate success. One minute they’re practicing in a trailer while Fowley screams sexist slurs at them and hires neighborhood boys to throw bottles at them, and the next they’re overdosing and running from rabid fans in Japan. It’s all just a bit too joyless, especially for a band that produced such immortally entertaining music. You find yourself wondering why they kept going if it was all so soul-crushing.

Which is an appropriate segue to talk about Kristen Stewart. Perhaps it was the joylessness of the script and its theme of celebrity misery that drew the famously glum young actress to the project. Stewart is arguably the most polarizing actress of her generation, between those who idolize her work in the Twilight films and the many who despise her ubiquitously uncomfortable media appearances.

All that aside, her performance as Joan Jett is just uncanny. Not only does she look and sound exactly like her (Jett herself was actually fooled by recordings of Stewart singing her vocal parts in the film’s songs), but Stewart easily accesses Jett’s rage, her lust, her ambition, her power, and most importantly, her restlessness. Jett is by far the most driven character in the film, and her driving force is the only constant for the audience to hold onto.

Despite the film’s many narrative failings, Sigismondi is still an undeniably gifted director when it comes to visuals. The film’s photography, art direction, and styling are all absolutely flawless. It is wonderful to look at, and boasts dozens of unforgettably rich shots. This is not surprising, given Sigismondi’s background in music videos and other visual arts. But the film never gathers any dramatic momentum. Its characters are mostly one-note, and the uneven script never permits them to develop meaningful arcs.

Getting back to my initial comments about exploitation vs. empowerment: I don’t actually care. And neither does the film, fortunately. It’s a boring conversation. But ultimately, there is inspiration to be found in the eventual success and worldwide fame of Joan Jett, whose passion to create rock music was so strong that she navigated the treacherous waters of the punk rock boys club, persevering through years of brutally thankless labor to eventually triumph on her own terms, releasing her smash debut solo album on her own label (she was the first woman to ever start her own independent record company) and becoming a household name who continues touring to this day.

But while The Runaways has the right look, it regrettably falls into the same style-without-substance trap as the band whose story it tells — but with none of its exhilaration. I’ll stick with Josie and the Pussycats, thanks.

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