Sundance was all abuzz this year with stories of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning locking lips in the new teen rocker drama The Runaways, which centers on punk pioneers Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. While there's plenty of chic mystique on display in the film, the overall result is rather thin.
The Runaways starts off well enough, with a young Cherie Currie (Fanning) getting her period before hopping in a muscle car with her older sister and her sleazy boyfriend. It's the kind of filmmaking that only a woman could direct accurately, and Floria Sigismondi gives us a very vivid idea of what it's like for these two sisters- young and on the run. The casual way the girls deal with Cherie's unexpected moment show how independent and unfazed they are as people, while the handheld cinematography gives us a peeking glimpse into their interaction and adds a sense of urgency to the scene.
From there, it's a series of scenes detailing the crappy lives both Currie and Jett lead, with Currie's mother (Tatum O'Neal) breaking up the family to move to Indonesia to marry a sweaty, douchey replacement for the girls' alcoholic father (Brett Cullen), who the girls take residence with after her departure. During this time, Currie cuts her hair, lip synchs to David Bowie at a school talent show, and when the audience turns on her, raises both of her middle fingers to the crowd. Concurrently, Joan Jett (Stewart) hooks up with girls, buys men's clothing, and tries to learn how to shred on the electric guitar, only to be told "Girls don't play electric guitars." The lives of our two main focal points converge when Jett befriends sleazy, post-Bowie glam androgenous music producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) at a night club and tells him she wants to start an all-girl rock band. Fowley doesn't hesitate to set her up with a gig. Yes, it's that easy.
With a new idea in hand, the over-the-top Fowley prowls a seedy nightclub looking for jail bait talent dressed garishly, wearing glam-inspired eye makeup. This is where he finds young Cherie sipping on a soda, asks her if she wants to join the band, and after asking a few questions, the least important of which being "can you sing?" (You can see this recruitment scene in our Runaways videos gallery!), The Runaways are born. Currie is invited to rehearse with the band in their craptacular trailer in the San Fernando valley. Glamorous it is not.
It is in this trailer where we are treated to the most interesting scenes in The Runaways. They're not interesting because we get to see the band form and grow, but because in that trailer, the film becomes Michael Shannon's three ring circus. Shannon's lively, crass, and flamboyant portrayal of Kim Fowley is the highlight of the film, providing moments that beg for repeat viewings. It's probably the only reason I'd see the film a second time.
From there, the band plays some private parties, then open for other bands at a nightclub or two, where Jett is disrespected and gets back at one of the headliners by peeing on his guitar. Fowley sends the band on tour around the United States, with little money and a station wagon for a tour bus. The girls get into drugs, teach each other how to masturbate, and ultimately hook up with one another. It is during this time where we see the infamous Stewart-Fanning kiss, but it's hardly the explosive moment audiences are led to believe it would be.
Fowley calls the girls from the road while banging a chick on his desk to inform them that they must return to Hollywood to sign their new recording contract with a major label. They do so in slow motion, then after some more quick family drama, it's off to Tokyo, which looks a lot like downtown Los Angeles, no doubt due to the film's limited budget. After getting mobbed by Japanese fans and hitting an all-time high on drugs, we flash forward to another recording session, this time in a studio as the band prepares their second album. It's here where some lightly developed tensions come to a head, leading the band to break up. After that, it's all down hill to the ending, which sees Jett become the legend she is, and Currie all but fade into obscurity.
It's a roller coaster, alright, but when it's over, you're sitting there asking, "Is that it?" The journey of a fledgling rock band, from delinquent teens to drug-saturated stars, to their inevitable fall and (sometimes) recovery is something we've seen again and again, so what's new here? Well, besides the teen girl aspect, nothing. In fact, even the journey itself is lacking in The Runaways, which feels like it's missing a large chunk in between the second and third acts. The rise and fall of the band just happens too quick, and while the Runaways occupied a very short amount of time on the billboard charts, the film makes it feel like it was over before it started. Press for the film stated that the Runaways were the first all-girl rock band to sell out arena-sized acts. We never get to see those performances in this film. What we see is limited to small nightclubs, etc., which is surely a budgetary issue.
Now, that's fine if the filmmakers couldn't afford to show us what it was like in full detail because they didn't have money, but they've got to give us something else to latch onto. How do you solve the problem? Well, The Runways takes the stance of a character piece instead of a big-budget ride like Oliver Stone's The Doors. That'd be great, except the script is suspiciously lacking in character. While Stewart, Fanning and Shannon all perform their best, they don't all have a lot to work with. Sure, there's a plethora of family drama, tons of drug-induced haze, and a lot of Bowie impersonating going on, but that's not really character. Currie gets the most focus, and we see her life outside the band the most, but Jett plays an equal part in the story of the Runaways, but we just don't see her as much. This really hurts the film when it comes to the third act, where everyone has gone their separate ways and all of a sudden, we're following Joan again and she makes up her mind to not give up. It's just one of those things that feels a little neglected, and leaves the movie worse for the wear.
Still, if you're interested at all in 1970's rock music, underage teen girls, drugs, sex, public urination, androgeny and poo-flinging, The Runaways is worth a look. If anything, you get to see what Dakota Fanning might look like when she's actually legal, and if nothing else, you can sneak a peek at the co-stars of New Moon and Eclipse making out!