A theme in The Runaways that rings true both about the band and the cast is this sense of surprise when people realize these young teenagers can really play. Maybe they showed up then to check out an all-girl band, or in this case actresses you may recognize from the Twilight series, but in watching them actually perform there is a realization that they’re the real deal. These aren’t just girls playing dress up.
Dakota Fanning gives the performance of her career as the feather-haired Cherie Currie, a 15-year-old thrust into the adult industry of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Her transformation from a passive high school outcast to confused sex kitten is engaging, drawing you in with her intensity and wild child attitude before capturing your focus through the drama of her family strife and spiraling addiction.
Kristen Stewart embodies the black-clad Joan Jett, a tough-as-nails rebel with aspirations of a music career patterned after idols David Bowie and Suzi Quatro. Stewart’s awkward, lip-biting persona erodes as she straps on an electric guitar, shouts into a microphone, and struts with a punk chip on her shoulder.
The relationship between Jett and Curie is the heart of the film, as they first bond over a shared love for rock and later rely on each other as their lives turn upside down. Assembled by the eccentric manager Kim Fowley (an unbridled, creepy turn by Michael Shannon), the pair becomes two-fifths of the all-girl group in a rusty trailer parked where no one cares. He berates them into a growling force of female power and shoves them out to start a revolution.
However, the other Runaways fade into the background, underusing Scout Taylor-Compton as Lita Ford, Stella Maeve (Sandy West), and Alia Shawkat (Robin) as the story hits the usual notes of a musical biopic. Humble beginnings, sudden fame, backstage bouts, drug-induced decline, and bottomed-out consequences play out as expected.
The film seems self-aware, depicting how the band perfected their image first and everything else came later. In the same way, Floria Sigismondi’s film nails the retro wardrobe and fierce attitude before introducing thin character development and a familiar arc almost as an after thought.
The same can be said about the unapologetic sexual nature of the movie, which experiments with Jett and Curie’s connection in a drug-fueled lesbian liaison. At 15 and 16 years old, Curie was encouraged to flirt with a lustful public image and exploited as “jailbait.” Fanning’s matching age and skimpy outfits play on the same taboos. Even Stewart, whose reputation for chaste, forbidden love proceeds her, is seen coaxing orgasms from her female band members and locking lips with more than just Fanning.
Sigismondi’s The Runaways is an artful representation of the 70′s as much as a gritty rise and fall story about a pre-packaged group of social misfits. It captures the reckless temperament of youth at a time when music was splintering into a crude, in-your-face representation of a new generation still discovering sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. So what if it isn’t finely tuned? Put another dime in the jukebox, baby.
3.5 out of 5.