Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writers: Floria Sigismondi
Cinematographer: Benoît Debie
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Stella Maeve, Tatum O’Neal
Studio/Run Time: Apparition, 105 min.
A motley crew, a cherry bomb
Once upon a time, before The Go-Go’s lips were sealed, before the Bangles walked like an Egyptian, five schoolgirls and a Svengali record producer created an all-girl rock band called The Runaways—the title of this film about the band’s improbable rise and inevitable fall. While rock biopics can sometimes be an unwieldy beast, The Runaways is a strikingly honest look at a band that was much too young for its britches.
With 15 year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) on lead vocals and a 16 year old pre-Blackhearts Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) on guitar, the band is relentlessly groomed in a ramshackle trailer by producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who goes as far as having boys throw dog feces and garbage at the girls as they perform, just to toughen them up. When the band hits the road, their shows become an extension of the fearlessness that Fowley injects into the girls. Director Floria Sigismondi made a superlative casting decision with Shannon as the crazed Fowley, and in making the eccentric engineer a pivotal character. As with films like Revolutionary Road and Shotgun Stories, Shannon proves to be one of today’s finest actors. Like a glammed-up drill sergeant, he bullies and barks and molds his raw recruits.
In her finest performance to date, Fanning is Cherie, walking the fine line between innocence and rebellion. She pouts like Marilyn and struts like Bowie, an overt sexuality juxtaposed with her own inexperience and immaturity. She arrives to her Runaways audition as a naïve and insecure kid, but with Fowley’s coaching and Jett’s coddling, she becomes a full-fledged frontwoman for a skyrocketing, badass band. But the duo’s education starts and stops with the performance; offstage, they’re basically left to fend for themselves. And with only their sexually-exploitative road manager for family, the girls fall into a life of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll never intended for 15 year olds. Sigismondi doesn’t try to stretch our credulity with deep dialogue or explanations—Fanning’s keen balance of moxie and world-weariness provides exposition enough.
Stewart is a fitting Jett, brooding her way through scenes much like she’s done in every film she’s made. Jett’s transition from Runaway to solo star serves as the obligatory sequence that sets up a too-tidy conclusion. But it works well enough for rock and roll. The Runaways’ magic wasn’t just in the music, or the producer, or the novelty of five lady rockers during disco’s heyday. It was the chemistry of its separate parts. Shannon, Fanning and Stewart are the lodestone that pulls this film together, much like The Runaways themselves.