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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Runaways: Sex, Drugs, and Depth

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 10:24 AM

The new Runaways biopic (called, simply, The Runaways) manages a feat most films about young girls, budding rock stars or otherwise, get totally wrong. The movie presents these teens as fierce without turning them into Hollywood tough girl caricatures -- in large part because director Floria Sigismondi also depicts their vulnerabilities in realistic ways that makes even their wildest adventures somehow relatable. (If you can't relate, say, to doing blow on an airplane about to land in Japan, you can possibly at least relate to being so young and fearless/stupid that you feel that giddy glee at getting away with almost anything for a little while in life). As females, as kids with invisible parents, and as wide-eyed followers of legendary wacko producer Kim Fowley, the members of the Runaways had plenty of obstacles between themselves and normal adolescence. But here they're shown -- zits, bruises, blow, and all -- to be fighters, even if that means having to eventually take that fight out of the public ring. 

The stylishly shot film focuses mainly on Joan Jett (Kirsten Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), with Michael Shannon doing his absolute best crazy-as-a-loon thing as Kim Fowley. The other members of the Runaways -- Lita Ford, California gal Sandy West, and bassist Robin -- are all afterthoughts to the ying-yang pull of these stars. Joan is ballsy from the start, a tough girl who grows more confident as she comes of age, fighting off stereotypes of how a girl should dress, play guitar, and, after fame hits the Runaways hard, hitting back at the pressure to be a pinup instead of a rocker. This is in contrast to Cherie, whose mother moves to Indonesia and whose father is a boozer, so she's left to take influence where she can. She pulls off a complete transformation onstage, flipping off the kids at her school talent show and dropping "Cherry Bomb"s around the world. But she remains tender throughout -- no amount of pills, bottles, and manhandling from gross dudes takes away the little girl inside. At one of the most moving points of the film, you see where she doesn't have Joan's inner strength -- and at 15, you can't blame her -- when she tells her bandmate she just wants to go home, that a broken family is better than no family at all. Her many breakdowns are strangely moving, as they're fueled by such obvious pain.

Fanning and Stewart completely become their characters -- especially Stewart, who the real Joan Jett has said in interviews sang her parts so well she thought she was hearing herself. This helps the film gain a depth that goes beyond the fascinating story of young girls embracing a rock dream in a boys' world. It also becomes a metaphor for getting swept up into a double-edged scene of any sort, where drugs and hangers-on can become dangerous if you don't have a good mentor -- or solid willpower -- handy. 

The only moment when The Runways flipped into cheeseball territory for me was in the first big kiss between Joan and Cherie. For most of the film, you view these girls through a female gaze -- during the scenes of their lingering makeout session, blowing smoke between their lips -- you feel like a lecherous old dude getting off on jailbait. But that scene is kept short, and the intimacy between the two is shown in so many other ways that don't feel as exploitative. 

In the end, The Runaways has everything a hit rock biopic needs -- great music, excellent old film stock giving the shots a vintage feel, woozy drug scenes, cool stylings of the sets and costumes. But most importantly, it takes an extreme example of young girls who grew up too fast and gives its principle characters a chance at showing us the real people behind all the makeup. Plus, man, Joan Jett was such a badass. 

The movie opens here tomorrow night with all sorts of cool screenings involving local DJs. Click here for more info on who's spinning where (and to read the review that ran in this week's paper). 

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Ian S. Port


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