Dir. Floria Sigismondi
(2010, R, 109 min)
★ ★ ★
Based on its stars — tween-friendly actresses Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning — I admit I wasn’t expecting The Runaways to be much more than a superficial grrrl-power tribute to chicks with guitars, but this R-rated drama shows surprising grit. The film performed poorly in its first weekend at the box office, prompting Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman to incisively comment about the unfortunate disconnect between the film and its prospective audience: Those old enough to fondly remember the Runaways probably don’t care about the actors, and young teens probably don’t care about the Runaways. They’re both missing out. Stewart and Fanning are accomplished young actresses with ambitions set to outgrow their fan base.
The Runaways covers the usual territory of sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll cautionary tales; these girls snort coke like they’re going through the paces of their Behind the Music special. But director Floria Sigismondi — who also wrote the screenplay, based on a book by the film’s subject, Cherie Currie — roughs the edges. She films with a grainy texture that creates a grungy 1970s feel, sexy in its raw, unpolished interpretation of blossoming teen rebellion. There’s a sexual encounter between Fanning, as lead singer Cherie, and Stewart, as Runaways spearhead Joan Jett, captured as a vague, red-lit haze of drug-fueled recklessness. What specifically transpires isn’t clear, but it’s not a scene about a sex act. It’s about the headlong rush, the sensory overload of newly discovered freedom and erotic power.
Fanning’s performance is key to the film’s success. She tarnishes her good girl image in a way that is genuinely shocking, and thus a good reflection of Cherie’s forbidden-fruit allure. The actress is surprisingly natural in the role, so the film avoids seeming like a naughty put-on. The Runaways manager, Kim Fowley, is a mercurial eccentric played by Michael Shannon in a performance that seems like an intruder from another movie altogether. At first he seems all wrong, but before long the sheer incongruousness of him — the wild makeup; gesticulations; and rude, unfiltered dialogue — becomes a kind of inscrutable delight, a shot of unbridled weirdness to liven up the standard-issue making-of-the-band narrative. He’s a cynical authoritarian in the guise of free-spirit revolution; the Runaways were the progenitors of female rock bands to come, but to Fowley, they were an investment opportunity. And Cherie, in her precipitous fall from grace, proved women’s equality in a way she didn’t quite intend: Girls can rock just as hard as the boys can, but they can flame out just as hard too.