The Runaways presents a conundrum. When a movie like this gets so many things right, it becomes that much more abrasive when it gets so many things wrong. Scenes from it are filled with a wild energy that are an effective commentary on youth and would excel the film into the rank of films like Almost Famous, Spinal Tap, and The Fabulous Stains. But then it retreads onto themes that put the film into the rank of a tired cliche that has no business with the other scenes.
What happened? It is almost depressing how much the film varies in quality.
The film tells the real story of the founding of The Runaways, an all girl rock group from the 1970s. They featured many artists who would go on to great success, including Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart – may I just say – wow. Who knew she could actually act) and Lita Ford (Scout Taylor Compton). Jett runs into the record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) who sees potential in this wild experiment. He recruits a woman named Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) who he renames Cherry Bomb and has he sing lead vocals. Jett is the driving force of the band, but Cherry soon becomes the face of the band and the envy of the rest of the members. She soon descends into a drug addiction while the other girls experiment with their music…and each other. Cherry eventually leaves the band in order to care for her dying alcoholic father.
First off, Kristen Stewart is by far the best actress in the film. After the Twilight movies, I never thought that I would type those words. But there they are. She looks and speaks exactly like Jett – and manages to convey the sense of the punk spirit that few can. I (long sigh) cannot wait to see what else she does.
Same with Dakota Fanning. I am used to seeing her as a child star, but from the opening scene in which her character has her period and has to shove paper towels into underpants in order to prevent the blood from running down her leg (yes, really, that is the opening scene) Fanning seems to be announcing her own maturity and the fact that she no longer wishes to be viewed in that light. She does a good job displaying the traits that were required for the character. Plus the…chemistry she displays with Stewart was quite convincing.
Besides, the film manages to convey how music relates to adolescence and how the attitude present in this music lead to the post-feminist movement. Sex was not something to be feared but something to be celebrated. There are no sex scenes in the film, but there is definitely an undercurrent of it throughout. Women were finding power in being able to excite men and then drive them off. “It is in woman’s liberation – it is woman’s libido” Fowley explains. “I want you to think with your dicks!” He wants to teach the girls how to think like men. The girls try to experiment in that regard – one of them discovers she is a lesbian after she fantasizes about Farah Fawcett in the shower. Yet they never question the fact that they are women – they are merely trying to mature and understand the sexual powers they possess. It is a fascinating insight to not just rock, but feminism. How could, say, Lady Gaga exist without this mentality?
So what is the problem? The problem is that the film descends into too many cliches and a completely stagnant third act that reads like something out of Syd Field’s books. I know that the film is “based on a true story” but these sequences do not feel real. Most of the third act (indeed, most of the problems present throughout the film) have to do with Cherry Bomb – she is not as interesting a character. Yet the film decides she is the focus in about the second act or so. We constantly have scenes of her calling home and checking on her sister. These scenes grind the film to a stand still – they have nothing to do with the themes present in the scenes, they have no energy, and they are (with the exception of Dakota Fanning) very poorly acted. Besides, we have seen the rock star battling a drug addiction before. Even when it is well acted, you are still watching someone who is constantly high and unable to move. This is no different and does nothing to further the plague of drug addiction. When Cherry becomes the emphasis, it becomes cliched. This would only make a normal film mediocre, but when pared with such well executed scenes as are present elsewhere it is horrifying.
Again, I know it is based on real life. Yet the idea behind such a film is that we, the audience, must understand why the story needs to be told. When the film is about the music, the band together, or even Joan Jett’s interactions with Cherry. When it is about all else, the director and the film loses focus. Is it right to recommend two thirds of a film? Because that is the best I can do here.