I didn’t know a whole lot about Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Kim Fowley, or, well, any character involved when going into Floria Sigismondi’s biopic about the 1970s all-girl punk rock band, The Runaways. Unfortunately, I didn’t know much more about them coming out of it, either. Films in general, and biopics and documentaries in particular, have the power to teach audiences about subjects and persons they might otherwise be unfamiliar with, and my natural expectation for a film like The Runaways is to come out of it with an understanding of what impelled Jett and Currie to become musicians in the first place. Sigismondi’s film, while well-acted and shot, is too thin on character development and plot to really make the motivations and drives of its players and the conflicts of its narrative palatable.
This isn’t to say that the movie eschews these aspects entirely; Currie, hailing from a dysfunctional home where her best source of familial support is her older sister, has enough bad things happening in her life to supply her with the sort of pent-up, anti-authoritative aggression necessary for making great, subversive rock music. The film also flirts briefly with a thesis which implies that Jett’s desire to become a musician stems directly from the overt displays of sexism on behalf of, for example, her guitar teacher, who tells Jett that girls only play acoustic guitars. But Jett wanders into the movie with almost no introduction and is given no substantive reason for being so passionate about becoming a rock sensation; more than anything it just seems like she wants to rock (and let’s be real, everybody wants to rock). Her character is left so utterly famished in the writing department that to suggest she forms The Runaways to prove to everyone that girls can rock just as hard as boys feels like bringing outside elements into the text.
Just wanting to rock isn’t enough, for Jett at least. Currie wants to escape from her overly dramatic and insensitive mother and alcoholic father, and a chance encounter with Jett and producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon at his show-stealing best) gives her a way out. To her being one of the Runaways means getting away from a bad situation, though the choice she makes along her journey make home life seem like a trip to Disneyland by comparison. But Currie’s only part of the equation, and “wanting to rock” doesn’t make for especially compelling drama when it’s not substantiated with demonstrations of Jett’s passion for rock and roll. She wants to play because she does; the film doesn’t vividly portray her need to be a musician enough to elevate her story above anything more than teenage wish fulfillment, which frankly does a disservice to what Jett has accomplished in her career as a musician.
Almost as troubling (but note quite) for the film is its slightly undercooked rebellious spirit. The Runaways isn’t an inert or tame movie by any means; there’s energy here, a sense of the excitement that these teenagers feel playing music on stage together, but it’s still missing the sort of unruly inertia that one might expect from a movie about, well, The Runaways. It’s not enough to sink the movie– and in fact if the plotting and characters were both up to par I’d probably consider this nitpicking– but it doesn’t do it any favors either.
Where The Runaways scores is mostly in the acting department. My feelings on Kristen Stewart aren’t a mystery; she’s the acting equivalent of tectonic instability, the kind of person who, should one base a movie on her star, will inevitably bring about the collapse of the entire film. Here, she demonstrates a few moments of excellence that remain outnumbered by those she approaches with her typical sullen and blank temperament rather than the ballsy, brazen flair required for a character like Jett, which actually leads to me to question how Stewart is directed more than how Stewart acts. Regardless, the end result is that Stewart never quite gives the insight into Jett that both character and film deserve, but happily she still walks away looking better than I expected her to. On the other hand, Dakota Fanning completely owns her role, breaking away from her child actress image and fully embracing the wild child attitude of Currie. Fanning has a much less forgiving and flattering role than Stewart; unlike Jett we’re actually shown where Currie comes from, and the abuse and neglect she endures before hitting the road with the band translates in her timid, buttoned-up demeanor. She wakes up once The Runaways strike out on their own, but by that point it’s only a matter of time before Currie begins her descent into drug addiction, and it’s a journey that Fanning handles with the adroitness of someone far beyond her age and talents.
Of course the real winner here is Shannon. Shannon, unlike many of his fellow cast members (and possibly even his director), really and truly gets what kind of movie he’s in and what type of character he’s playing, and his performance breathes enough vita and hot air into iconic producer Kim Fowley to give him the magnetic presence due to someone of his renown. He’s immensely fun to watch– Shannon gives him a rhythm and a speech pattern all his own, suggesting reserves of manic energy residing deep within his lanky frame. He doesn’t have the same screen time as Stewart or Fanning, but he makes use of every moment that he’s brought into the forefront of the film, and easily becomes the best part of the entire thing.
Which is not to say that Sigismondi made a bad film with The Runaways at all, just one that’s missing some crucial character notes and really could have used a judicious series of revisions to round the story out a bit more. If the film lacks insight into Jett’s personality, it does a great job capturing the appeal and rapture of performing on a stage to a packed audience; Sigismondi understands what makes rock and roll so exciting and invigorating, shooting these moments with verve and intensity and making them come alive. It’s in the in between where her film falters. If Sigismondi had invested the same level of attention and energy into the film’s human moments, The Runaways really would have sung, but frustratingly we’re left with something that feels woefully incomplete.