Selling Girl Power, With A Man Counting The Cash

The Runaways cast: Alia Shawkat, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning

From left to right: Alia Shawkat, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning are the '70s teenage band The Runaways — Robin, Lita Ford, Sandy West, Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. River Road Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption River Road Entertainment

The Runaways

  • Director: Floria Sigismondi
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 105 minutes
Rated R for language, drug use and sexual content

With: Riley Keough, Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Scout Taylor-Compton

The Runaways is a curious mix, an exhilarating story of female self-expression that's also a cautionary tale of female exploitation. So as the '70s girl group The Runaways comes together and then slowly disintegrates, there's a simultaneous rising and falling arc — which would be thrilling if writer-director Floria Sigismondi had a structure that could hold it all together.

What she does have is punkish audacity: Her first shot is a splotch of menstrual blood on the pavement, as 15-year-old future Runaways vocalist Cherie Currie gets her first period. What makes this even more outrageous is that Cherie is played by Dakota Fanning, now stretched out and filled out. It's as if the director is saying, "Here's your adorable little child star. What do you make of her now? What will she make of herself?"

After she's teased by her more worldly sister, Cherie dolls herself up and heads for Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, a well-known L.A. club that's also where Kristen Stewart's Joan Jett heads, after buying herself a motorcycle jacket. She wants to play guitar in a rock band, but in the mid-'70s, the sexist conventional wisdom said girls didn't play electric guitar. Still, when Jett accosts the ghoulish impresario Kim Fowley, played by Michael Shannon, the idea for The Runaways is born.

"I'm Joan Jett," Jett says to Fowley outside the club. "I play guitar, electric guitar."

"Joan Jett, that's a cool name," replies Fowley. "You guys got a demo?"

"No," she says. "Look. No guys. I want to start an all-girl rock band."

"Really?" he says. "Maybe I am the luckiest dog after all."

Fowley calls over a young blonde who's standing nearby. "Sandy West is a drummer," he says, making music history with the introduction. "Joan Jett claims to be some sort of guitar goddess."

"I didn't say that," replies Jett.

Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie) and Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett) i i

Fanning's Currie is the central character in The Runaways, based on the singer's memoir. Stewart's Jett turns out to be more of a bystander — though the two do have one desultory love scene. River Road Entertainment hide caption

itoggle caption River Road Entertainment
Dakota Fanning (Cherie Currie) and Kristen Stewart (Joan Jett)

Fanning's Currie is the central character in The Runaways, based on the singer's memoir. Stewart's Jett turns out to be more of a bystander — though the two do have one desultory love scene.

River Road Entertainment

That's a juicy scene, but a couple of things knock it down a peg. Kristen Stewart is overdoing the twitchy awkwardness. And then there's that usual biopic hazard: writing too on the nose, so that you almost see the light bulb over Fowley's head: Young girls! Guitars! Money! The Runaways is paced so briskly that you barely register the externals before you're hurtled along to the next biopic marker.

Although Jett is the co-executive producer and Stewart the first-billed star, the film is based on Currie's slim autobiography, written less than a decade after The Runaways imploded in the early '80s. The Jett character is mostly a bystander: She stands by as manager Fowley drills his teenage girl band, then stands by some more as Currie becomes the group's blonde-bombshell mascot and begins to fall apart from all the drugs and sex and Fowley abuse.

The film's more lurid thread is Currie's debasement. Fowley isn't thinking female empowerment; he's thinking "jailbait," barely pubescent girls acting dirty and available for an audience with as many people leering as rocking out.

According to the documentary Edgeplay, made by one-time Runaways member Vicky Tischler-Blue, the vibe among the bandmates was never very good — and director Sigismondi gives scant time to other members. Late in the film, Currie and Jett have a love scene, but it happens in a vacuum. You get no sense of whether it altered the band's already volatile chemistry, or even what Jett and Currie made of it after the fact. The last part of the film is unfocused, with connective tissue missing. Maybe there's a three-hour cut of The Runaways down the line that will be more compelling.

As Fowley, Michael Shannon looks scary and stops the show with his rants, but have you ever seen the real Fowley interviewed? His creepiness is otherworldly. Shannon, even with his formidable size and nonstop epithets, seems too lovably damaged. This is Fanning's movie, and you can taste her relish in breaking out of child-stardom with a vengeance.

But as she parades around onstage half-naked, chanting that she's a cherry bomb and striking one sexualized pose after another, you're uncomfortably aware that she's 15 years old and legally a minor. How we reconcile that fact — or can't — with the thrill of her performance gives The Runaways at least some of the present-tense electricity that the real group had onstage so long ago.

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