Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Whether It's Real History Or Not, The Runaways Is Surprisingly Engaging!

The Good: Good acting, Decent story, Soundtrack is well-presented.
The Bad: Somewhat predictable, Dark.
The Basics: A surprisingly good rock band drama story, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart use The Runaways to rise into their own as actresses.

I'm not sure how things work in Hollywood, as I've never endeavored to spend much time there, but it seems to me with hundreds of different people to work with in the acting community, I would probably want to work with as many different people as possible. And yet, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning went from working together on New Moon (click here for that review ) to The Runaways and then back to work on the latest film in the Twilight saga. Go figure. Both Fanning and Stewart, though, seem to be working to break the images they might have been cast for previously or typecast in. And in The Runaways, both Fanning and Stewart do what is expected of good or great actors, they live up to the promise of giving the viewer something new.

In the case of Kristen Stewart, that means her portrayal of Joan Jett is one that is confident and ballsy as opposed to having her cowering and waiting to be saved at every turn. And, in the case of Dakota Fanning, it means that she plays a character who is outwardly sexual and for those of us who remember her from her younger roles, this has the net effect of making us feel old and disturbing us. But, the truth is, the acting is the thing to watch here.

Joan Jett is living in the 1970s as a teenager, listening to music and wanting very much to try her hand at it. Cherie Currie is a teenager who wants something better for herself and who wants to differentiate herself from her twin sister. Currie and Jett meet in Los Angeles on the streets and they click. Pushed together by Kim Fowley, a guy who knows music, likes the all-girl sound of the band and makes it one of his missions to make them a success. And The Runaways are launched, paving the way for teen girl bands.

But, Currie gets into the sex, drugs and lies that accompany so many rock and roll stories and Fowley is far less about the music than Jett would like. Tension and torsion between Jett, Currie and Fowley cause The Runaways to fracture.

The Runaways is essentially a VH1 band biopic of the week, but with real stars and as a result, the story is one which becomes predictable and obvious in many ways. Writer and director Floria Sigismondi adapted Currie's autobiography for the script, but made some creative and legal changes to accommodate both the film audience and demands of some of the players involved. The result is a movie which is not terribly fresh or original in its story. A bunch of girls who don't quite fit in start a band. It has an edgy sound which no one has heard before, the right person hears it, they make it (relatively) big. But, the people involved have conflicts, the band falls apart. Sound generic? Well, that's pretty much how the film is, at least on the plot front.

On the character front, The Runaways works a little better. Cherie Currie is painted as an experimental, eager girl (she's an early teen, but despite her rampant sexuality, she still comes across very girlish in many scenes) and this initially becomes a point of bonding between Currie and Joan Jett and point of exploitation for Kim. Currie has an "I'll try anything once" type attitude and is intrigued by the idea Jett is pitching; to do something no one else has ever done, which is to form an all-girl band. Currie's sense of adventure and experimentalism is piqued. But what makes The Runaways work so well in the end is the same thing that makes a Shakespearean tragedy work; the flaws which bring about the end of the protagonist(s) are within them from the beginning. So, while Fowley is both an aid and a detraction as the band's manager, his influence becomes more incidental as the film progresses. Instead, the seeds for the demise of the band were always within it (at least in this film version of the group). Currie continues to push for the next, new, exciting thing, while Jett finds a comfort level in The Runaways which she wants to hone and grow with. And between Jett and Currie, Lita Ford, Sandy West and Robin are dragged around and fall.

In many ways, the other members of the band are incidental characters (though it is nice to see Alia Shawkat in film as Robin). This is a story of Joan Jett, Cherie Currie and Kim Fowley and the others become accessories to their story. This does not mean the performers do not do well; they do, especially Shawkat whose performance is unlike anything she did on Arrested Development, but the essential struggles are between the other three. To that end, Michael Shannon gives a good supporting performance as Fowley, though one suspects his dialogue was enough to get the film the "R" rating.

What separates The Runaways from a VH1 Behind The Music (other than its fictionalized account, as opposed to being an actual documentary) or movie-of-the-week is the performances, not just the star power. Kristen Stewart steps out as Joan Jett to become an actress with actual presence on screen. She is energetic and she speaks with a forthrightness and force that makes the viewer believe that her character has a dream and she has the will to pursue it. She is eager, experimental and driven and Stewart captures that well. Unlike the moneyed performances which have made her a celebrity, in The Runaways, she gives a performance where she is able to embody steely-eyed resolve and she sells it. More than just a mullet and a slouch, Kristen Stewart sells the idea of a woman with a dream with the hard jaw and vision to see it through.

But it is, eerily enough, Dakota Fanning who steals the show on The Runaways. While Stewart might have the willpower thing down pat, Fanning gets the loose, easy body language of a wandering soul perfect. While her character is undeniably an experimental tease who is eager for every experience she can get, Fanning plays her with a wide-eyed sense of optimism that makes the viewer believe in her "anything is possible" attitude. Fanning plays off Stewart's sense of resolve with a sensibility that makes the process fun. In The Runaways, Joan Jett has a dream and she sets her mind to it, Cherie Currie looks for the most fun ways to accomplish it. Fanning does a decent job of making Cherie more than just a sexed up teenager who is restless, she infuses the idea that Currie has a similar sense of ambition as Jett, but it is far less focused. Fanning's loose body language gives the viewer the sense that her character is always looking for something and she'll look everywhere to try to find it. This is the essence of great acting; Fanning has never had a role like this one and she nails it.

Despite my musical studies, I am largely unfamiliar with The Runaways, but the music presented in the film is decent garage band rock with a female twist to it. The album has a rich soundtrack which is not intrusive, but is frequently obvious. This makes sense as the film is about a rock band, though it does a fairly decent job of not having an excessive number of scenes where the band is just playing music (without developing the story in one form or another).

Basically, The Runaways is a band rising, band falling story, but it is done with a quality of acting that sets it apart from most, making it easy to knock this up into "above average" territory. Now on DVD, "The Runaways" comes with a commentary track that is fun and insightful, along with previews of other films. This might not be the most inspired set of bonus features, but it is typical for this type of film.

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© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. did joan jett and cherry curry have a happy ending in the story?

  2. It's a matter of perspective and public record. They didn't end up together or anything . . . Why not watch the movie? :)


  3. i cant see the movie here in my country........
    im hoping to find a dvd but im still searching for it.....

  4. Good luck! In case you didn't know, the movie is based upon Cherie Currie's biography; perhaps that might be easier to get in for you?