REVIEW: The Runaways [2010]

“I want to hear you fun girls growl”

Welcome to the coming out party for the new, adult Dakota Fanning. The movie may be called The Runaways, after the band for which it depicts, but this is most definitely the Cherie Currie story. When I first heard about the film beginning production, as well as all the hype surrounding Kristen Stewart’s casting as Joan Jett, I really couldn’t have cared less about the project. I chalked it up to being just another ‘making of the band’ tome of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But then I discovered that the script was based off of Currie’s own autobiography; perhaps this thing would be a little more honed in on a single subject than I had thought. Floria Sigismondi’s work may consist of sex, a lot of drugs, and blaring rock music, but it also shows how the publicity machine and celebrity can work its way inside an innocent child and change her life forever.

The Runaways are Joan Jett’s baby—she says so herself. Here was a young girl doing her best to stick out from the mainstream herd, plugging in her electric guitar when her instructor wanted an acoustic rendition of ‘On Top of Old Smokey’. This scene is not only great because of Fast Times’ Robert Romanus portraying the teacher, but also because this is the defining moment for Jett to go full bore into proving girls can rock just as hard as the boys. She finds producer Kim Fowley outside a nightclub and pitches him on the idea of an all girl rock troupe before she even had a clue of what might come next. Soon she is in a trailer with a drummer, bass player, and guitarist, auditioning young Currie, a girl they approached because of her blonde bombshell looks, not the promise of anything musical. Yet, for a girl who refused to speak sexual innuendos, a girl who walked the walk but was still a sheltered kid a heart, Cherie found that inner beast inside and growled her way to legend.

There is a lot of Jett here, but besides her trajectory before teaming with Currie, it all deals with her interactions with the Cherry Bomb. Cherie is only fifteen years old, has a drunkard dad living with his mother, a mother who just left for Indonesia with her boyfriend, and a sister doing all she can to support the group working at a fast food joint. So, the opportunity to star in a band that Fowley told them had the potential to make the kind of waves The Beatles did couldn’t be passed up. This was her opportunity to escape the dead end life that was staring her in the face. We watch her break out of her shell on the road, the press-labeled ‘jailbait’ hooking up with her tour manager, (it’s a pleasure seeing Johnny Lewis, Half Sack from “Sons of Anarchy,” in a film), and eventually experimenting with Jett herself, all while snorting coke and drinking enough to make her alcoholic father proud. These girls are growing up, unaware of the media scrutiny and pandemonium that comes with being a rockstar—some revel in it and others wish for the comfort of obscurity they left behind.

I do kind of feel bad for Alia Shawkat, who doesn’t get to say a word as bassist Robin, and Scout Taylor-Compton, who gets to complain and scream at Cherie a couple times as Lita Ford, but I do think expanding their roles could only harm the film’s success. What makes it so much better than a behind the music documentary is that we are allowed to see one girl’s fall from heights that were just too much for her to handle. And while Stewart is great as Jett—she has never disappointed as an angsty-eccentric, it’s the romantic girlie girl of Twilight that puts her out of her element—this film is all about Dakota Fanning. Here is an actor that has a lot to overcome in the transition from cutie-pie child star to serious thespian. Jodie Foster played a prostitute in Taxi Driver when she was like twelve, so the growth wasn’t too hard for her, but what ever happened to Haley Joel Osment? Oh yeah, he crashed his car and disappeared. Fanning is a revelation here, working every emotion to absolute effectiveness and leaving everything she has on film.

I’d be remiss to fail in mentioning the wonderful Michael Shannon, playing the creepy weirdo like the best of them as Fowley, but the true third star of the movie is the combo of Sigismondi’s direction and Benoît Debie’s cinematography. I can’t remember the number of times I was mesmerized by the close-ups, the angles, the shallow depth of field, or frame rate changes causing frenetic concert performances to slow as one of the girls plays her guitar or whips her hair back. A couple stunning sequences include the love scene between Fanning and Stewart, shot abstractly and out of focus, cut to a music track and playing more as art film than biography, and a single-shot of Fanning drugged up getting a call from her sister, beginning in the background and soon on the floor in front of the camera positioned below her, softly saying that she has no home. It’s the use of light, however—washing out some frames, sparse in others full of the night sky, and kinetically strobing in club scenes of girls dancing—that helps show why this will be one of the best indie films of the year. It’s completely unafraid to stick out from the crowd, much like the women on display.

The Runaways 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Alia Shawkat as Robin in The Runaways.
[2] Michael Shannon star as Kim Fowley in Floria Sigismondi The Runaways.


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