Review: The Runaways

The Runaways (2010, directed by Floria Sigismondi)

Depending on who you talk to, the Runaways were either an interesting footnote in rock history, or one of the Most Important Band Ever. They certainly weren't the first chick rockers (Patti Smith and Suzi Quatro got there before they did) but they were the first all-girl band to actually make some legitimately awesome noise (despite being packaged as disposable sex kittens) and thus prove that girls could kick as much ass as boys. A biopic was pretty much inevitable; the only question was which generation of starlets would be the ones to portray them.

In the end, we got the Twilight generation. And that turns out not to be as tragic a bit of happenstance as it could have been.

As a movie, the Runaways is fairly bland, which is a weird thing to say about a film that begins with a drop of menstrual blood hitting the sidewalk. It makes no effort whatsoever to distance itself from all the usual rock biopic stereotypes. Drugs! Tyrannical managers! More drugs! Big success in Japan! Drugs again! Shattered home lives! Still more drugs! Partly that adherence to cliche is due to the source material. The movie, while produced by Joan Jett, is based on Cherie Currie's autobiography, and Currie apparently saw her life in terms of those cliches. Sigismondi's direction, in her feature debut, doesn't help either. She makes no effort to get to the other side of those cliches, just presenting them at face value rather than using them to reflect on Currie's choices, or contrasting how Currie was handling the ride to how any of the other band members were. Sigismondi frankly seems more interested in shooting a music video for Cherry Bomb (which she does, awkwardly shoehorning it into the Japanese tour sequence) than she is in making her characters three-dimensional.

Really, though, most of the blame needs to be pinned on Dakota Fanning. She's simply not up to the task at hand. It's fine that she doesn't come across as a terribly dynamic frontwomen for the band, since Currie wasn't a terribly dynamic frontwoman in real life, but what doesn't work is her doe-eyed distance from the proceedings. She's trying to play it guarded and damaged, but she just comes off as disinterested. Currie is supposed to be the fallen star, the one who burned out and couldn't handle the fame, who didn't trust that she deserved the success: the mirror image of Joan Jett's 'born to be a rock star' balls-to-the-wall determination and drive. Instead Fanning just alternates between being kinda nervous, and kinda sleepy, and never once seems to be giddy from the heights, or bracing for the (to her) inevitable lows.

And Fanning's weak effort is a crying shame, because Kristen Stewart is a revelation as Joan Jett. She absolutely fucking nails it. I'm sure it helped to have Jett herself on set for reference purposes, but that doesn't downgrade the bravado of the performance. From the moment she appears on screen she's a nuclear missile homing in on rock and roll stardom, who isn't going to let any motherfucker stand in her way. While Fanning has the showier role in Currie, Stewart's got the tougher assignment. Currie is living a cliche rock lifestyle because she doesn't know any better; Jett's living it to prove that she can, and because she knows she has to in order to get what she wants. The self-awareness, and self-assurance, in Stewart's performance is amazing, and completely unpredicted by anything I've seen her do before. It's a performance that to an extent even saves the film. With a lesser actress in the role, the Runaways would have been a total train wreck, as opposed to the merely OK movie that it is. I'll even go a step further. Kristen Stewart does a better job of channeling Joan Jett here than Joaquin Phoenix did of channeling Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. She's that damn good.

About the only thing I can think to compare Stewart's performance to is Joseph Gordon-Levitt's in Mysterious Skin. I had zero expectations for either of them heading into their respective movies, and came out the other end strongly suspecting that they might in fact be among the best actors of their generation. Gordon-Levitt's proved me right on that assumption since; I can only hope Stewart shakes Bella out of her hair and gets a chance to do likewise.

There isn't much to say about the rest of the movie, because there isn't much else to the rest of the movie. Michael Shannon isn't good at all as the band's svengali Kim Fowley. At no point do his profanity-laced tirades and mind games rise above the level of comic relief, and they really needed to have some actual menace behind them given how they were supposed to be contributing to the band's disintegration. The rest of the gals barely gets any screen time, which is weird considering that a) Lita Ford was the band's guitarist and it's not like she disappeared off the face of the earth after the Runaways broke up, and b) they went to the trouble (WARNING: OBLIGATORY SPINAL TAP REFERENCE APPROACHING) of inventing a bassist for the band, cast Maeby from Arrested Development (Alia Shawkat) as said fictional bassist, and then gave her all of about three lines. I understand the thought process behind inventing a bassist, since in reality the Runaways blew through more bassists than Spinal Tap blew through drummers, but it just seems a wasted effort to go to all that trouble and not do anything with the character. Keir O'Donnell does deliver a fine Rodney Bingenheimer impression though, so that's something.

Basically put, the Runaways is just all right. Stewart's performance aside, it's nothing special. It isn't daring enough to be more than a formulaic rock biopic, but despite all the teenage drug use and the brief lesbian scene between Stewart and Fanning (c'mon, you knew it would be in there... did you really need me to tell you about it?) it also isn't entertainingly trashy enough to be a legendary Gaggle of Starlets flick. It may, in fact, be the exact midpoint between I'm Not There and Satisfaction.

If it ends up doing for Kristen Stewart what the band itself did for Joan Jett though -- make her realize what she wants and what she's good at, and helps her get there -- then it'll all have been worth it.

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