Watching The Runaways, I was reminded of the Chuck Klosterman riff on how teenage girls are the new teenage boys. Here's a movie about a bunch of chicks from fucked-up families who fall under the tutelage of a crass, manipulative record producer, write some solid tunes and do a few tours before the rock 'n' roll lifestyle (heavy on the drugs and sex, of course) grinds them down and sends them limping into adulthood. We've seen variations on this story before — in movies as divergent as Sid and Nancy, The Doors and Walk The Line — but the fact that the debauched band members who are sleeping with each other and cramming pills down their throats are 16-year-old girls forces us to confront all kinds of gender stereotypes and inequalities that are often left unexamined.
The Runaways is based on the true story of the late-'70s all-female punk band of the same name that began as the brainchild of California record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Fowley was sort of an eccentric scumbag, but one who understood the rock 'n' roll ethos. After a chance meeting with teenage diamond-in-the-rough Joan Jett (Twilight's Kristen Stewart), Fowley hatches his greatest scheme: an all-girl rock band, equal parts grit and youthful sex appeal. Jett's got the musical chops and the attitude, but her look is more motorcycle dyke than girl-next-door. No, what Fowley repeatedly says he needs is some hot "jailbait" out front, rockin' the mic — and underage titillation soon arrives in the form of Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning).
Currie's home life is less than ideal — she's close with her sister (Riley Koeugh), but her father's an alcoholic no-show and her mother (Tatum O'Neal) just moved abroad to play house with a new husband — making her the perfect complement to Fowley's band of outcasts. (The fact that she's blond, whip-thin and sexy doesn't hurt either.) The producer works his budding starlets through a sort of rock 'n' roll fantasy camp, sequestering them in a shitty trailer and forcing them to write songs and rehearse while local lowlifes chuck empty beer cans at their heads. Rock is combat, Fowley instructs, and the training pays off at a raucous house party where the girls dominate the stage and the crowd.
Soon The Runaways are on the road, living out of shitty hotel rooms and crushing the boredom between gigs with alcohol or pills or worse. Various couplings result, everyone's taking too many drugs, and before long the whole enterprise devolves into rampant arguing. Since this is a true story, you know that Joan Jett is headed for bigger and better things (the movie concludes right as Jett is going solo, saving most of her post-Runaways career for a written epilogue before the credits), but the music biz isn't for everybody — and it has a real nasty habit of chewing up an innocent with a pretty face the most.
Michael Shannon gives a terrific performance as Kim Fowley, but The Runaways belongs to Kristin Stewart and Dakota Fanning, with both actresses delivering career-defining performances. I wouldn't say I'm an expert on Joan Jett (most of my memories of Jett are from watching MTV as a kid), but to my eye Stewart nails the look and attitude of the fledgling rocker. Fanning is a revelation as Cherie Currie, (almost) all grown up and bringing to life a character that is every father's nightmare. The two actresses have an easy chemistry and charisma to spare, and The Runaways would have surely catapulted both to stardom if they weren't there already.
I loved The Runaways, but you should know I'm a sucker for movies about rock 'n' roll. Despite my appreciation for the film, I would never let my sub-16-year-old child (male or female) see it. Sure the story is about teenagers, but the subject matter is very adult and I'd worry that my kid would hook into the ample excitement on the surface of the film while missing the buried messages about exploitation, gender roles and the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. But if you're of age and dig movies about rock 'n' roll, The Runaways is an absolute must-see.