Whether or not the filmmakers realise it (or intended it) The Runaways most obvious superficial attribute is showing the world that Dakota Fanning has “grown up” (a phrase I want to stop using, we can’t very well grow down. Can we?) and that Kristen Stewart can play more than the listless, bumbling hot mess that is Bella Swain. Yet, for me to leave it at that does a disservice to the film which ends up becoming one of the stronger ones from the year for me, thus far.
I’m unversed in the history of the band on which it is based, as much as I am unversed in that of Joan Jett. The Runaways calling card was never going to be its ability to show us a great “biopic”. In fact, if you do some digging you’d realise that the film is part fiction / part truth. For the first half hour two stories exist in parallels. A young Cherie Currie is an almost rebel, but not quite an outcast who’s dysfunctional family life is doing nothing to temper her obvious issues. Meanwhile Joan Jett is living life as a rebel, though she’s not “trying” as much as Cherie. She’s obviously attracted to music and has a skill for guitar playing. With the help of an obviously despicable produced Jett, Currie and three other girls form an all girl rock group. Plot details are incidental, the girls will make a rise to the top against all odd, enjoy some time there and then have a nasty fall to grace. There’s really no particular change to the age-old plot. The Runaways is a film depending on its acting, at least theoretically. Forgive me, but I couldn’t help but imagine what the film could have been with Saoirse Ronan in the role of Currie. I won’t deny that Fanning has prodigious talent, though her predilection for playing children too old for their age makes her a bit overbearing at times. I realise though that Fanning’s biggest issue is her over-technicality. She is so dedicated to turning in a good performance that she comes across as too intense at times. But this is no pan on Fannng. She settles into her character over time, in some scenes she is so excellent I almost smile to think what she could become in a few more years. She savours those moments where she gets to go all manic on us, but ironically her most poignant moment comes with a simple smile as the film’s final shot.
I’m a bit more undecided on Kristen Stewart. She does a good job, certainly. But her androgynous Joan Jett is still a little too inarticulate at times. But, I probably have my own issues with the actress to sort out since she delivers a convincing performance of a woman at odds with the world. Stewart manages to show surprising bits of character when least expected turning her character of Jett from an illusion on paper into a real woman on screen. You have to wonder if that kiss between her and Fanning is merely Flora Sigismondi’s attempt to put a gimmick in the film, but I can’t blame the film for that. Of course, as many have noted, it is Michael Shannon piercing portrayal that is the strongest. He offers one of the four performances of the year that I consider as near excellence, thus far. It’s odd that he manages to be authentic even as the character is begging to become a histrionic disaster. Sigismondi has problems with being more original than generic, but she knows how to handle her actors (or at the very least ensure that their performances flow unencumbered).
It’s easy to regard The Runaways as fleeting, and perhaps even ephemeral, but it succeeds in its attempts of solidifying the worth of Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart (for now at least). Perhaps, on the basest of levels, it has nothing “new” to offer – but then, some comfort can be taken in the old when it’s done with such spirit.