The Runaways is the liturgy of Cherie Currie and Joan Jett—though between various fingerpointing books and blogs written by ex-band members, deciphering the band and women’s “actual” history is like walking backward in platform heels.
Director Floria Sigismondi has composed an artfully condensed cinematic snapshot that mercifully avoids most of the pitfalls of the celebrity biopic. Most biopics take on too long a time span, herding the viewer through the predictable rote exercise of hitting biographical data as well as the rise, fall, and re-rise plot points—the CliffsNotes of a person, a summarized life. The Runaways maintains a tight timeline and an intimacy with its main characters, and, in doing so, constructs an immersive experience of ’70s rock ’n’ roll and of rebellious girls tearing shit up—and being torn up.
Kristen Stewart has Joan Jett down—the hunched posture, heavylidded gaze and laconic, tomboyish swagger. While Stewart’s doe-eyed yearning in the Twilight series comes across as mopey and opaque, here it ups the emotional stakes; she’s got real stuff to long for, and she’s both determined and restless as hell. Stewart’s portrayal of Jett’s bottomless ambition to create herself and the Runaways and of her complex relationship with Currie (Dakota Fanning) intertwine throughout the movie without getting too metaphorical. Stewart’s onscreen chemistry with Fanning is nothing short of romantic in the best possible way. Having seen Stewart emerge from a stilted teen telenovela victim into Joan Fucking Jett elevates her into a force with which to be reckoned.
I expected Fanning to be good; she’s managed to inject old-soul complexity into kid parts since she was, what, 5? She doesn’t disappoint here. Fanning’s Currie plays up to male sexuality (and her Daddy issues) with her onstage lingerie and jailbait photo shoots, but when she explores her own intimate sexuality, it’s stunningly believable and brave. The way Sigismondi shoots the sexual encounters between Fanning and Stewart avoids graphic acts and floats into sensation, excitement and the glowing trance of infatuation.
Also excellent is Michael Shannon, mesmerizingly scary as Kim Fowley, the girls’ manager, producer and tormentor. Shannon manages to inject pathos and real conviction into a shudderworthy character. At one point, he thunders, “It’s not women’s lib, it’s women’s libido,” a line that demonstrates Fowley’s crucial lack of understanding: For these girls, libido is liberation.
As a document of cultural history, The Runaways is more along the fantasy lines of Inglourious Basterds than, say, the journalistic mien of Band of Brothers. While justifiably frustrating to some, I now can’t get “Cherry Bomb” out of my head.