Overly Familiar 'Runaways' Still Authentic, Well-Performed

Directed by: Floria Sigismondi, Runtime: 114 minutes
Grade: B-

If Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning were looking for a talent showcase, on top of a way to break apart from that corner pop culture has pinned them in, then The Runaways worked like a charm. Sex, drugs, and musical revolution are all cranked to 11 in this depiction of the all-girl band fueled by tweaked estrogen, and the film's dynamic duo gets the musty performances and tantrums down to a pill-popping, booze-guzzling fault. What's lacked in this on-screen depiction of the Bowie-meets-Bardot Cherie Currie (Fanning) and pre-Blackhearts Joan Jett (Stewart), adapted from a book penned by Currie herself, is that same sense of rawness generated by the band to break from the mold. Music-video director and photographer Floria Sigismondi finds authenticity in the blossoming eyes of Stewart and Fanning as we follow their meteoric swan dive, but this familiar trip down rock 'n' roll's well-traveled road to self-destruction neglects to harness enough distinctiveness or womanly might to give it a life of its own.

After all, "This ain't women's lib, kiddies -- this is women's libido", as the band's manager Kim Fowley (Micheal Shannon) rams down their collective throat in a jam session within a cramped trailer. The Runaways were created as a product of both a sociological and sexual rebellion, plucking gender-defying Joan Jett from her leather-clad doldrums that were caused by a lack of ability to express her talent -- or herself. As she hooks up with Sandy (Stella Maeve), a local drummer, at the behest of record-producer Fowley, with a dream of an all-girl band and without so much as a demo tape to show what it'd sound like, the band irks towards taking shape within the suburban town. Joan Jett's story, however, rides parallel to that of fifteen-tear-old Cherie Currie's liftoff from a high-school talent competition to a place as lead singer -- and their sex-pot marketing tool -- creating a story of dual development within the band's mid-'70s venue-hopping on a pennies-to-the-pound budget.

That's where The Runaways is at its best, when we're soaking in the raspy virgin vocals from Cherie and the growingly confident posture in Joan Jett, as they tackle aggressive performances at house parties, skating rinks, and other hazy spaces. During these scenes, it becomes clear why Floria Sigismondi felt comfortable with Stewart and Fanning in the central roles, because they embody the stage presence of Jett and Currie with a nimble and controlled manner. As they dodge cans tossed at one venue and, later, swagger on-stage with more rebellious fire in another, the opulent space-aware photography boost their performances into windows through time looking back at the band's higher points. Sigismondi captures that entrancing point in their swan dive, where the intensity of the action they're wrapped up in overwhelms the senses and drops stomachs in the moment.

But what we're offered at first, from the splash of a drop of menstrual blood on the pavement to the crotch-grabbing pep talks from producer Fowley, could be seen as a pledge towards empowerment, yet The Runaways devolves into a stale, conventional chronicle of an unconventional musical force. Obviously, there's no way to alter the end result of the band's downward spiral, so the turns are foreseeable; however, within the beat-for-beat rhythm as they tumble down a winding staircase, the otherwise proficient filmmaking offers little in the way of sincere bombshells. We expect the scenarios that show up around every corner -- snorting coke in odd locations, close-ups on bloodshot eyes, and arguments during recording sessions and over glamor photos -- and the way they're handled has a run of the mill energy that dulls the desperate temper generated in its beginnings. As their sexuality becomes both a bargaining chip and an Achilles' heel, the rhythm can't escape its own familiarity to ensnare individuality.

Even as it stumbles through this going-through-the-motions rhythm, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning take charge by pumping realness into these players riding the cusp of rock 'n' roll notoriety. Naturally, Fanning aptly handles her role in a chameleon-like fashion, finding a better outlet for her branching talent than the likes of the wispy Secret Life of Bees and the troubling Hounddog. Where The Runaways really grabs a hold of its substance is within Stewart's impressive performance as Joan Jett, a second noteworthy turn after seeing her in The Cake Eaters. Her subtlety in recreating Jett's look, muted angst and thorny gender-split disposition crafts the closest thing to a spitting image that I could've expected from her, easily a far cry from her nondescript Bella from Twilight. And, well, Micheal Shannon's lavishly animated Kim Fowley interacts with both of 'em with oddball brashness, which, considering Fowley's endorsements within interviews, might be at least moderately -- if reservedly -- on point.

Still, there's an overly narrow focus in The Runaways that muffles its scope, and I think a lot of it comes in the fact that the title mostly hones in on Jett and Currie as runaways -- not so much in the nature of the band itself, their music, and what they ephemerally stood for. Lots of ranting occurs in the film about exploding through gender stereotypes and the advantageous exploitation of their sexuality, yet it gets masked behind meandering focuses and a competent but trite reenactment of the industry's engulfing swirl of deviance. Sure, that's part of the point, conveying that the purity of revolt could be lost in the control of commercialism and a fog of overmedication, yet there's an emptiness coasting underneath three highly competent performances that takes away from what could've been a wry projection of the '70s female glam rocker as an archetype. Instead, it's just a plain ole' biopic that you'll swear you've seen before, even if the story fits into the mold rather well.


Post a Comment

Thoughts? Love to hear 'em -- if they're kept clean and civil.