The Runaways, directed by Floria Sigismondi, is based on the story of the all-girl punk-rock group of the same name, formed in 1975 and headed by Joan Jett (played by Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). The opening scene is a close-up of Cherie’s first drop of hot menstrual blood hitting the even hotter Los Angeles pavement, in a strange way marking both her territory and her entrance into womanhood. The film depicts the band’s rapid rise to rock n’ roll fame which, like that blood, takes them by surprise and introduces them to the gritty realities of being a girl in a man’s world.
Joan, a skinny, guitar-playing, Keith Richards-worshipping tomboy wants to “rock like the boys do.” She meets Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), an eccentric record producer, and pitches her idea of starting an all-girl rock group. Always looking for the next big thing, he hooks Joan up with a few other female musicians, but the band is lacking something: sex appeal. Spotting Cherie at a club, Fowley takes her on as the lead singer and sex kitten of The Runaways, marketing the band as “jailbait rock.” Using a rundown trailer as their practice space, Fowley prepares the girls – none of whom are over 16 – for the cutthroat world of rock ‘n’ roll. He yells at them “think with your cock” and “it’s not about women’s lib, it’s about women’s libido,” while throwing dog turds and empty beer cans to ready them for pissed-off crowds. Before they know it, The Runaways are signed by Mercury Records and jet off for a tour, where the rock-star lifestyle of booze, sex, and drugs begins to prove too much for Cherie.
Hardcore Jett and Currie fans will likely be critical of the clean-cut young starlets playing rockers who were far grittier than themselves. Yet critical eyes waiting for breaks in character will be disappointed: Fanning and Stewart never waver. Nobody could have done a better job.
Fitting perfectly into her 1970s apparel, we are unable to take our eyes off the eerily grown-up Fanning, who plays Currie with a mature and hypnotic confidence. Perhaps her performance is so alluring because of the potential doubling – like Currie, Fanning is a young woman coming of age in a ruthless industry known to be both sexually and economically exploitative. Kristen Stewart completely redeems herself from the awkwardness of her Twilight phase – saying little but conveying a lot, she nails Jett. It is clear that Stewart is not on-screen to “look good” but rather to act truthfully, which she does. The girls’ physicality is perhaps the most impressive part of their performance; Stewart constantly stays in character with a hunched walk and boyish movements, while Fanning’s on stage dancing is verbatim from actual footage of Currie.
Sigismondi, better known as a music video director, demonstrates her sharp eye for combining music with the moving image. The concert scenes are great, sometimes blurred or sped up, conveying the “caught in the moment” feeling music gives both its performers and listeners. Her shots are grainy and, like the 1970s music scene, they’re not pretty nor trying to be. A particularly interesting scene to watch is when Joan’s head is sticking out from a bathtub full of murky water. After a few seconds she submerges and the shot cuts to her naked body writhing in an underwater space much larger then she’s actually in, evoking a grand metamorphosis or rebirth. Sigismondi takes refreshing risks like this one and pulls them off.
The Runaways is definitely worth taking a chance on. The acting is great, the shots are interesting, and who doesn’t like a good seventies mullet?