by Scott Mendelson
The Runaways tells a story so old that director/writer Floria Sigismondi barely sees fit to tell it at all. The film, purporting to chronicle the quick rise and fall of the first popular American all-girl rock band, has little to say and little to justify its existence. Knowing next to nothing about the real history being presented, I couldn't tell whether I was seeing a cliff notes version or a relatively small story stretched out to feature length. Nothing much happens in The Runaways. Take out the classic rock biopic journey and all you're left with is a few decent musical numbers and a whole lot of confused sexual politics.
In brief, the film concerns the formation of the titular band, as Kim Fowley finds five rock-ready young girls in the trailer park portion of Hollwood, California in 1975. The picture immediately focuses on just the two lead members of the band, lead vocalist Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). If you've seen any up-from nothing rock biopic, you know what happens next. The band overcomes early resistance and overt sexism to achieve moderate success, but eventually falls apart due to conflicts and a greedy manager who puts his own pocket book above the mental health of his performers.
The picture doesn't even pretend that the story hasn't been told a thousand times, and even openly spoofed at least once (Walk Hard). But Floria Sigismondi seems to either not care or think that the fact that this version is about teenage girls makes it unique. It doesn't, as Satisfaction covered much of the same territory without the navel gazing. The picture contains no sense of time or societal impact, so we never know why what we're seeing matters in the grand scheme. Oddly enough for a film that's at least partially about girl-powered rock n' roll, Michael Shannon steals the film with a showboating performance that doubles as an audition reel to replace Health Ledger as the Joker in Shadow of the Bat. Yes, Fowley is a greedy hustler intent on using his girls' jail-bait sexuality to sell records and concerts, but the movie never really acknowledges that he basically plucked these kids out from obscurity and gave them a chance at fortune and glory.
Everyone save for Fanning and Stewart are pushed well into the background, including the other three members of the band. Dakota Fanning does what she can with a walking cliche, but her Cherie Currie suffers from a confused script that can't decide if she blew her chance because she fell into drugs or she fell into drugs because she never wanted the rock star life and/or felt guilty about abandoning her family for the road (Currie certainly doesn't seem to enjoy performing). Kristen Stewart gets the showier role, but in the end Jett is presented as merely a more confident and enthusiastic rock star who eventually succeeded through sheer force of will. We don't get even an ounce of character development for the rest of the band (Stella Maeve, Alia Shawkat, and Scout Taylor-Compton), which leads us wondering how they feel when their dreams are dashed due to Currie's personal demons.
Without much of a story to tell and too little music to perform, the film basically relies on sexual titillation to draw in audiences. There is a certain discomforting amusement at watching Fanning play a scantily-clad punk rocker in an R-rated picture (for the record, this is a VERY soft R), and the rest of the (age-appropriate) band isn't exactly hard on the eyes, but the film is overly confused about its own sexuality. On one hand, the picture seems to condemn the commercialization of Fowley's quasi-jail-bait rockers (Currie was actually 15 at the time), on the other hand the film seems to want to celebrate these young girls taking control of their own 'gifts' and using them for their own artistic purposes. Considering that Currie wasn't much of a singer (and we don't get to see what talents the other three possessed), all the band seemed to offer, according to the film, was the teasing of teen sexuality and Joan Jett's genuine acoustic skills.
In the end, The Runaways dresses up a groundbreaking female rock band in the most generic biopic imaginable. Without a real look into their talent and their personalities, we're left basically with the assumption that the Runaways was successful because they were awfully cute. If there is more to it than that (and I presume there is), then the film actually is a disservice to the history being told. The game cast treads water against a script that shoves everyone but Fanning's Currie into the background yet even shortchanges the lead in terms of honest character development. For what it's worth, the movie makes me want to learn, as this can't be all that there was. As a rock band, The Runaways were the first of their kind and paved the way for the acceptance of women rocking and/or rolling. As a movie, The Runaways would get booed off the stage.