The Runaways (Apparition)
More than three decades ago, The Runaways marked the youthful breakthrough of two rock-and-roll icons: “Ch-Ch -Cherry Bomb” herself Cherie Currie and the renownedly rough-edged Joan Jett.
Now, with the film The Runaways—chronicling the group’s formation and disintegration—two young Hollywood icons are breaking through.
Sure, Dakota Fanning has been around for what seems like at least three decades, and Kristen Stewart is already a household name thanks to the sparkly vampire-romance series Twilight. But here, in The Runaways, each blossoming performer offers her best work to date.
As Cherie Currie, Fanning conveys a heartbreaking combination of innocence, anger, and longing. Kristen Stewart disappears into the role of Joan Jett, assertively selling every smidgen of irreverence, scorn, and determination.
If there were ever any doubts as to the abilities of these young actresses—I admit, I had them—The Runaways should settle those doubts.
But the film has more to offer than strong turns by its star performers. From its dual-perspective, The Runaways portrays both Jett and Currie with searing honesty, in all of their brash, unapologetic “badassery.”
Both small moments (a birthday candle snuffed with a finger pinch) and larger gestures (urination on a foe’s fancy guitar) depict well a sly, brazen nerve. Jeers are met with stronger resolve. They trip, they fall, and they get back up: no hesitation. These girls are the real deal.
Director Floria Sigismondi pays careful attention to image and atmosphere. The band’s international tour becomes a swirl of fog, lights, color, and bodies melding together. At the same time, she maintains a sharp sense of geometry, with Fanning and Stewart in artfully angled configurations, cutting through the murky blur.
In another scene, Jett lies in a bathtub, her eyes sealed shut as she deeply ponders new lyrics. From above, her figure perfectly fills the frame, and only her head, arms, and knees poke above the water’s surface. Then, from below, she descends into an open ocean: the limits of the tub cannot constrain her inspiration.
Still, for all these signs of innovation, the film sticks to a disappointingly formulaic narrative structure—its flourishes and stylistic approach unable to distract from stale biopic conventions. Rather, the conventions distract from the style, and The Runaways are trapped inside a story square.
As conflicts collide during the final stretch, momentum screeches to a halt. A new cautionary tone feels out of place. The film abandons much of its style and energy in favor of dramatic fallout.
As much of the narrative goes through the motions of a standard biopic, the story feels most profound when focus is away from The Runaways as a group and on Jett and Currie as individuals.
Their relationship is unusual, interesting, and, regrettably, not fully explored. Jett is romantically attracted and fully dedicated to Currie, while Currie seems attracted to Jett’s attraction, and hesitant as to how to reciprocate without being dishonest.
Meanwhile, the band’s bombastic creator and manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, without an ounce of appropriate restraint) may or may not lust after one or both of the girls. Jett ignores his unseemly advances, just as Currie appears cautiously flattered.
And herein lies the film’s ultimate truth. The Runaways were little more than a group of rowdy gals playing dress-up and banging on instruments, led to success by two of its members—one with the looks, one with the drive, both with the spunk—and a potentially psychotic, borderline-pedophile manager.
The film finds its biggest emotions when we are reminded that these are really just a group of kids. But the story loses sight of this truth too often as it gets swept up in flashy mythology.
At what point does exposition become exploitation? The story of The Runaways loudly begs for some form of realization on this front, but the film doesn’t seem to acknowledge the question at all—even as the band’s first single is titled “Cherry Bomb” and sung by an underage Currie in a lacy bodice to a sea of screaming fans. The moral implication gets lost in the lights and fog.
A little less noise, perhaps. And a little more humanity, and a lot less convention. Just enough hard edge in The Runaways, though, with two impressive leading turns by Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart. May their careers endure longer than the passing phenomenon that was The Runaways.
Written & Directed by Floria Sigismondi, based on the memoir Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway by Cherie Currie.
Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content – all involving teens. (Ed. note: I swear I didn’t add that last part. That’s all the MPAA.)
Runtime is 1 hour, 49 minutes.