In 1975, the idea of an all female rock music group was out of the question. In the film The Runaways, Joan Jett, played by Kristen Stewart, is learning how to play guitar by her teacher, played by Robert Romanus (some may remember Romanus as Mike Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemount High. I digress but it was pretty neat to see him back on the silver screen). When Jett asks her teacher where the amps are located in the classroom, the teacher explains that girls do not play the electric guitar. In an era where there were a lot of feminists declaring it was the “woman’s turn”, this moment in Jett’s life was just one of the many instances where Joan’s rebellious attitude wanted to break out of its shell. When Joan visits a club and meets well known music producer, Kim Fowley, played by the versatile Michael Shannon, Fowley senses an opportunity to form the first mainstream girl rock band. With the help of drummer Sandy West, played by Stella Maeve, the band begins to form. Other band members begin to unite with the project such as Lita Ford, played by recent Halloween’s Scout Taylor-Compton, and Robin, played by an insanely underused Alia Shawkat. The only problem is that the band is missing a sexy lead singer. Someone who will charm the men and then spit in their faces. Enter Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning. Cherie is a lost teenager trying to fit in at her high school and in life itself. When Fowley and Jett encounter Currie, Fowley’s producer-senses start tingling. Cherie is asked to join this new girl band entitled The Runaways and she accepts. For the rest of the runtime, the band hits a lot of highs, sometimes literally, and some lows all while trying to keep up with their bad-girl image and play hard-hitting music.
The instant stand-out about The Runaways are its performances. We’ve seen Dakota Fanning shine in previous work and this role adds to her impressive resume. Fanning’s portrayal of Currie is rebellious but also very vulnerable and shy. We see a large transformation throughout the film as Currie starts off as a quiet schoolgirl, who mumbles lyrics in a pretend hairbrush microphone, into a tough and independent musician who is not afraid to walk around scantly-clad and sing about hardcore intimacy. Fanning does a fine job creating this transformation and providing lots of character development in order for the audience to believe in Cherie. We want to see Currie break out and come into her own as an independent woman. As much as she’s independent, Fanning depicts the feeling of wanting a friend really well to which we see her look up to Joan Jett.
As much as I was very impressed with Fanning’s portrayal as Currie, the performance that stuck out to me the most was Stewart’s characterization of Joan Jett. Every time a new Twilight movie gets released and people start to jump on the “Bash Kristen Stewart’s acting” bandwagon, I always stick up for her acting. People are always too quick to judge her acting range based on just the Twilight films. Here, she proves that she is definitely a competent actress. Much like Fanning’s ability to convey sincerity, Stewart does a magnificent job portraying rebellion in an uptight, sexist environment. When the band starts its snowball effect, we also see Jett come out of her shell more and more. In the scenes where the band is performing, Jett is absolutely head-over-heels with the experience; she’s proving people wrong, playing her music, and having a blast. Even though she acts very maturely, we see a youthful, fun side as well to Joan.
Along with the performances, the movie is shot fairly well, especially the inventive concert sequences. Also, for someone who hasn’t heard a lot of music by The Runaways, the soundtrack was insanely catchy and memorable as well.
With all the pros the film has going for it, there are substantial problems as well. As much as the story of The Runaways is very interesting and groundbreaking for its time, there really isn’t enough meat to flesh out a feature length film. There are a lot of scenes that repeat themselves. For instance, when the band hits a bump in the road, we get a lot of scenes of the band trying to deal. A few of these scenes are fine in a band bio-pic but the film seems to want to stay with these emotions for a very long time. When the film spends too much time focusing on these elements, the film loses its footing and begins to meander. If the film was maybe a tad shorter, this wouldn’t have been such a big flaw but for a film that’s almost 15 minutes shy of two hours, this stands out big time. Also, the direction is a bit of a mixed bag. The film is directed by music video director Floria Sigismondi and this is her first time helming a full length feature film. Sigismondi shows promise and potential during a good portion of the film executing a lot of neat and inventive manoeuvres with lighting, having a great eye for detail, and she is able to capture a raw, defiant emotion quite well. However, in dialogue-heavy scenes where characters are confronting one another, the pacing takes a major hit and, as an audience member, it was hard to become involved with those scenes; which brings us to the script that Sigismondi also penned. Again, this is her first time writing a screenplay so there are many good elements that show promise but the script becomes a victim of falling into a lot of band bio-pic cliches, as well as having too many big lipped alligator moments. A big lipped alligator moment is when a scene has little to no influence on the story and it ends up being over-the-top because of this. Also, the moments are never acknowledged in the film ever again. Scenes where Currie has an underdeveloped fling with a groupie and where Jett pees on another bands guitars feel exaggerated and comes off as “filler”. The first few times these moments happen, it doesn’t affect the movie too badly but when there are an abundance in a film of this length, again, this flaw stands out big time.
The Runaways is a very average band bio-pic with some stellar elements. It does a good job depicting the Seventies, pent up emotions, and the feeling of being trapped in a box. The performances are excellent and the visions being conveyed by a promising filmmaker are definitely there. Maybe if Floria Sigismondi focused on just the direction or on just writing the script, the film would feel a little more balanced. However, The Runaways is definitely a solid first entry for Sigismondi and it’s a solid film showcasing the rise and fall of an innovative band of misfits.