‘The Runaways’: A Reluctant Review

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All the talk this morning is about the Academy Award nominations being out, but since there were no earth-shattering surprises, and the stuff’s been written about and fretted over so much already, I’m going to forego any commentary and instead talk about the film I saw last night: The Runaways. A hot ticket at Sundance last week, the film earned mostly positive reviews from festival-goers, enough in any case to lead me to believe there might be something to it. Alas, it seems I was duped by positive word-of-mouth yet again.

I call this a reluctant review because I have a mile-wide soft spot for Joan Jett, whose popularity in the ’80s neatly coincided with my burgeoning appreciation for rock, if not music in general, and I don’t want to disparage any project of hers (she served as executive producer). What’s more, I’m pretty certain that that was her, in the flesh, sitting at the end of my row, which added a uniquely positive frisson to the experience of seeing the film. Nevertheless, the presence of an admired celebrity did nothing to enhance what is basically a weak-sauce rise-and-fall movie with cardboard characters, an aimless script and a formal approach that mixes too many montage sequences with needless, arty flourishes.

The first shot, at least, is arresting: menstrual blood falling on sun-baked macadam. Of course, such a vulgar opening gambit invariably creates certain expectations about what’s to follow—presumably a rough-edged, warts-and-all kind of affair—but in fact the movie never again approaches this degree of daring or unpredictability. Instead, it devolves into one sustained music video that’s broken up by the odd emotional high or low point. The fledgling band struggles at first (montage), succeeds (montage), and breaks up (montage). Since you know full well what’s going to happen in advance, it’s the details of the story that matter, and too many of them here are simplified and/or glossed over by first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi’s strategy.

Its worst consequence is that we don’t really get to know the band. As others have already pointed out, the film might be called The Runaways, but it’s really the Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) story, one of opposites who attracted. Jett’s the hard-nosed rock-and-roller in thrall to Suzi Quatro and the Sex Pistols. Currie’s the softer, gamine bombshell who likes Bowie and Don McLean. Other than the fact that they have shitty home lives, that’s basically all we ever learn about them. Everybody else in the band is relegated to side-mouse status, including drummer Sandy West and lead guitar player Lita Ford. Genuine fans of the group will likely bristle at the short-shrifting of these integral members. It also doesn’t help that Alia Shawkat plays a fictional bass player who is all but invisible here. Why pick a popular (almost) name actress for such a thankless role?

I wish I could say that the performances somehow buoy this thing, but I can’t. With the exception of Michael Shannon as manager Kim Fowley, everyone here disappoints. Fanning looks great, and there’s a perverse thrill to be had in hearing the little girl from I Am Sam call someone a “filthy pussy,” but she doesn’t have a fraction of the moxie and stage presence that Currie did. Stewart doesn’t fare much better. There’s a dark, feline ferocity that Jett fairly oozes to this day, whereas Stewart simply comes across as being petulant and hard.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the reality of band’s origin story. If you go by the trailer and its pitch, The Runaways’ ostensible theme is one of female empowerment, showcasing the first all-girl outfit to succeed in the male-dominated world of 70’s rock-and-roll. So it’s more than a little deflating to learn that the band was the actually Fowley’s brainchild. He’s manipulative, opportunistic, and svengali-like to the point where the band’s success doesn’t seem much more their own than, say, The Monkees. Without Fowley, it’s unlikely there ever would have been any Runaways. Where’s the girl-power message in that?