Moral Lessons Found Lacking in Well-Acted Runaways
- Friday, April 09, 2010
DVD Release Date: July 20, 2010
Theatrical Release Date: April 9, 2010 (wide)
Rating: R (for language, drug use and sexual content - all involving teens)
Genre: Drama, Biopic
Run Time: 109 min.
Director: Floria Sigismondi
Actors: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Scout Taylor-Compton, Alia Shawcat, Riley Keough
In The Runaways, a group of young—very young—girls forms a band and, with the prodding of a passionate producer, redefines the idea of what a rock band could be in the late 1970s. The story is familiar, maybe a little too familiar for its own good: Band rises, band's vices contribute to its destruction, certain band members come back stronger than before. It's like a two-hour version of an episode of VH-1's "Behind the Music."
The film is based on a book by Cherie Currie, lead singer of all-girl band the Runaways, a novel idea in the 1970s. So it's her story, although it's also the story of band mate Joan Jett, who would go on to great success with her own group after the Runaways broke up. Played by Kristen Stewart—Bella in the Twilight films—Jett's character receives nearly equal weight as does Currie in the film. (Other band members refused to participate in the film and their roles are minimal.)
Currie (Dakota Fanning) wants to be in the spotlight—we see her, early in the film, take the stage for an awkward lip-synching performance before her classmates. She has no apparent talent for singing, but that doesn't concern Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a producer befriended by the eager Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Jett explains that she wants to be a star, but Fowley knows that the key to success is image. The band will sell sex, and when he glimpses the sensitive, charismatic Currie across a crowded club, he sees dollar signs. Fowley approaches Currie and convinces her she's perfect for the role of a red-hot rocker girl.
Once he draws out Currie's rocker persona, the band takes off. Through rehearsals in Fowley's trailer, the band learns how to perfect its performances, project its image more forcefully and deal with hecklers. Currie and Jett also learn about themselves—they're only teenagers and their sexual energy isn't limited to the band's performances.
The Runaways doesn't shy away from the sexuality of the band mates. Although guys hang around some of the band members and are clearly involved with them, the girls openly discuss, and are aroused by, thoughts of other women. They also are clearly used by Fowley, who encourages them to appeal to the basest instincts of male rock fans, but they achieve success under Fowley's tutelage. He may be smarmy, but he's the one who sees the girls' potential to break through the all-male world of rock musicians.
Currie's character is the most complex in the film. She's never fully comfortable in the role assigned to her by Fowley, and her responsibilities to her sister and father back home make it clear that she has divided loyalties.
Is she happier once she leaves the band? The film leaves this as an open question, settling for a coda that highlights Jett's success at taking girl rock to the next level with her own band. For Currie, the experience of the Runaways is, at best, bittersweet. She broke barriers in the world of rock music, but never seemed as interested as Fowley or her band mates in shattering stereotypes. We don't know that Currie ever finds peace, only that she removed herself from a lifestyle that was taking her down.
If the film is nothing we haven't seen before in terms of its story arc, it's also notable for strong performances from Stewart, Fanning and Shannon. However, the debauchery and hedonism on display in The Runaways make the film difficult to watch—these aren't role models, after all, and the film doesn't shy away from the sexual exploitation and early sexualization of the band members.
The Runaways is a sad, cautionary tale, and a contradictory one. It wants to celebrate the lifestyle that gave the band members their success, but also show the downward spiral of Currie, who wrestled with trying to live out her image as a sex kitten. The Runaways makes no judgments. Whether this is a strength or a weakness is left for viewers to decide.
Given that the story's most optimistic message is one about Joan Jett's record sales, the case for seeing the film is difficult to make. The Runaways does show the truth of the downside of the music business, especially for these young teen girls, but it also holds back from some of seamier details they actually experienced (a rape scene reportedly was shot but cut from the final film). While such discretion can be commendable, it also can be a cheat, shying away from the most disturbing details so as not to distract further from whatever form of uplift the storyteller wants to convey. That makes the film less honest than it could have been, but considering all that is included in the film, it's a bit of a relief.
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