I'm always interested when I see someone from a photography/music video background make the jump to feature films, because the results have turned out some of the best directors in recent memory (Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, or David Fincher) and some of the worst (Joseph Kahn, Simon West, Dominic Sena), and I think it's a tough jump to make in general. Photography and music videos are a particular discipline, and the skills it takes to make a great music video do not automatically translate to the skills it takes to make a great feature film.
So in approaching "The Runaways," my first question was not "How accurate is this to the reality of the band from the '70s," since I'm not an expert on the band or the milieu in which they worked, but rather "can Floria Sigismondi tell a story?" And the answer, based on this film, appears to be... sorta.
By now, most of the publicity for this film has focused on the casting of Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Curry, and that's understandable. Stewart's media profile has skyrocketed as a result of her participation in the "Twilight" films, although many critics were already seriously considering her work thanks to roles in films like "Into The Wild" or "Zathura," where she exhibited an interesting charisma on the rise. Fanning, of course, is one of the best known child actors in the world right now, and as she moves towards adulthood, she faces the same struggle that every child actor does: can she make the jump?
For the most part, "The Runaways" is a standard-issue rock'n'roll biopic, a film that tells the story of a group of teenage girls who allowed themselves to be molded into a pre-packaged wet dream fantasy, each of them for different reasons. For Joan Jett and Lita Ford, they were desperate to be the Amelia Earharts of rock, girls kicking open the boy's club door with a snarl and a bad attitude, determined to be judged for what they can do, not for what's between their legs. In the case of Cherie Currie, she simply wanted out, and the band offered her the first opportunity to escape her home, her life, her general unhappiness. What their manager Kim Fowley (played here by the great Michael Shannon, who seems to get better in every role) wanted was to sell some underage T&A, and if they happened to make music worth listening to, that was just a bonus.
Sigismondi brings a certain energy to things, and there is a pace to the film that works as entertainment. And Sigismondi gets good work from her cast for the most part. Stewart plays such a simmering, internal version of Joan Jett that her performance is probably the least dynamic of them, but it's consistent and thought out, and she sells a few big moments in a way that convinces me that she's got a real career waiting for her on the other side of "Twilight." Fanning is the one who really surprised me here. She's sexualized to an uncomfortable degree, especially considering she's still only fifteen years old in real life, but that's sort of the point. She is turning into a striking young woman, and she possesses an onscreen confidence that would be envied by most actors decades older than her. She is at her best in the first half of the film, on the way up, and the only thing that mars the work she does in the film's second half is (I'm guessing) a dearth of real-life experience to draw on. I'm not convinced that she knows what chemical burn-out or sexual degredation feel like, and as a result, there's a touch too much "play-acting" in the way she plays Cherie as she hits the rough part of the ride. I will give her this, though... there's one rock''n'roll move of hers during a show, when she smashes a pill under her platform heels then snorts it right off the stage, that is perfect in both conception and execution, and it's just proof that Fanning has what it takes to make the jump to an adult career without missing a step. Michael Shannon is so greasy he practically leaves a trail on the ground when he walks, and he suggests things about Fowley that the script is too scared to make explicit, making this another example of why Shannon is one of the best character actors in Hollywood right now.
But that lack of nerve about Fowley is indicative of the larger problems with the film. Currie's book, which the film is based on, leveled some fairly grotesque charges against Fowley, and the film plays everything too squeaky clean to really work as honest biography or as cautionary tale. And as Devin Faraci pointed out after we saw the film, this falls into that trap that a lot of rock films do, where the Runaways appear to be the only band in the world. By not setting up the context of what pop culture was doing at the time, and by making it look like they went from zero-to-the-Beatles-and-back, it all seems to be too easy, too surface, and happening in a vacuum. Alia Shawkat, so good on "Arrested Development" and in "Whip It," doesn't deliver more than a line or two of dialogue in the whole film despite being one of the band members, and Taylor Scout-Compton's Lita Ford is a one-note drag, written in the easiest way possible.
I think Apparition is going to do well with the release of "The Runaways." It's not a badly-made film, and it's not unpleasant to sit through. I just think it ends up a disappointment because with these actors, and with the eye for detail that Sigismondi obviously has, it could have been something special instead of something so deeply ordinary.
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