The Runaways (Apparition), directed by Floria Sigismondi, draws its primary appeal from precisely the teen exploitation it decries. There’s a certain tawdry B-movie satisfaction in watching the not-yet-legal child star Dakota Fanning—Satsuki’s voice in My Neighbor Totoro! Fern in Charlotte’s Web!—go down the tubes as Cherie Currie, the drugged-out and corset-clad lead singer of the ‘70s girl-punk band the Runaways. But the beats the movie hits are predictable enough that, after a rousing, raunchy opening act, the story of the group’s fast rise and spectacular flameout begins to feel like an exceptionally dirty-mouthed after-school special.
Fifteen-year-old Cherie, an identical twin from a disintegrating family (her father is a fall-down drunk, and her flaky mother, played in a cameo by Tatum O’Neal, follows a boyfriend to Indonesia as the movie begins), finds solace in her record collection. In a powerful early scene, she sings along half-audibly to David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at a school talent show as her classmates mock her glam getup. Drinking pop at a Sunset Strip disco, the blond and angelic Cherie is “discovered” by the seedy record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), who tells her she has the right look to front an all-girl band he’s putting together. Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) is the guitarist and songwriter; the band’s other three members, Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), Sandy West (Stella Maeve), and an unnamed bassist who’s actually a composite character (Alia Shawkat), are barely allowed a line apiece.
In a cramped trailer that’s parked in a vacant lot full of garbage, Fowley unleashes sadistic coaching (“Come on, you filthy pussies, let’s rock and roll!”) to hone the girls’ aggressively sexual stage presence. Shannon brings his trademark near-unbearable intensity to the role of Kim Fowley—as he mocks and torments the girls, he’s so awful you want to reach into the screen and throttle him—but the part is written as a pure grotesque; there’s no trajectory, no back story, no character arc.
Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett is similarly underwritten, but instead of radiating unmitigated nastiness, she radiates unmitigated cool. Whether shouting down a square music teacher who tell her, “Girls don’t play electric guitar,” or snorting coke in an airplane bathroom, or teaching her bandmates how to masturbate while envisioning Farrah Fawcett, Joan is at all times the picture of hip rocker detachment (which Stewart’s performance translates into mild, mumbling disaffection). Only Fanning’s Cherie is given the chance to change during the movie, but the change she undergoes—from virginal rock aspirant to jaded, trance-eyed addict—is so familiar from earlier music biopics that it hardly registers as a plot at all. There are some shots—a close-up of Fanning with smeared mascara, a shot of an abandoned phone booth emitting a busy signal as the receiver swings back and forth—that belong on a roster of images that should be banned from movies forever. (At least no one knocks a glass off a table, signifying the death of another character off-screen.)
First-time director Sigismondi, who has made music videos for Marilyn Manson, Sheryl Crow, and the White Stripes, excels at capturing the look of the decadent mid-’70s, an era that seems, in retrospect, to have been deliberately striving for maximum ugliness. All the high-waisted jeans, glitter platform boots, and sprayed and feathered hair only make Fanning seem more like a skinny schoolgirl invading the dress-up box. Kristen Stewart looks fabulous in her brunette shag and homemade Sex Pistols T-shirt, but the scene where we watch Joan stencil that shirt is one of the movie’s only glimpses of her creative process. Though Joan reminds Cherie late in the movie that “I write the songs, you just sing them,” the nuts and bolts of composing and recording music—and the pleasure that the girls, or at least Joan, presumably derived from that act—is surprisingly absent from the film. The Runaways are presented as having sprung so completely from the brain of Kim Fowley that, when Joan shows up at the end in her ‘80s incarnation as lead singer for the Blackhearts, we never quite get why she was the one who went on to become a feminist rock icon while Cherie, after a brief solo career and years struggling with addiction, reinvented herself as a chainsaw artist.
The wispy insubstantiality of The Runaways can’t be blamed on its cast—Fanning, Stewart, and Shannon are all good in their roles, even if their range is never tested. Ultimately, maybe it’s OK that there’s not much below the surface of this great-looking but shallow movie. It’s a movie about surfaces, about the feeling of being a rock star, which Currie—on whose autobiography Neon Angel the script is based—first craves, then ODs on, then runs away from in disgust. The Runaways will be a disappointment to those who love rock’n’ roll but a treat for those who love the idea of Kristen Stewart singing “I Love Rock and Roll” while jumping up and down on a bed in her underwear.
Slate V: The critics on The Runaways and other new releases