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The Runaways

Your Wild Girls

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Rock biopics tend to come in two flavors: rise-and-fall and, for variety’s sake, rise-fall-rise. The Runaways, the feature-film debut by video director, Floria Sigismondi (she also wrote the screenplay), combines both sub-narratives into one, ultimately unsatisfying film.

The film is watchable primarily for its late-70s rock soundtrack and engaging turns from Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett — the co-founder, rhythm guitarist, songwriter, and occasional singer for the seminal, all-girl rock band, the Runaways — and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, the band’s lead singer and all-around wild child. It’s a film that works best, unsurprisingly, when its cast is on stage, emulating the real Runaways.

Following the usual permutations of the rock biopic formula, with added emphasis on the female empowerment theme that made the Runaways — with their punk-inflected sound, glam outfits, and overt sexuality — popular among teen girls (and boys) in the late 70s, The Runaways picks up with 15-year-old Cherie (Fanning) fighting off the thinly veiled advances from her sister Marie’s (Riley Keough) muscle-car driving boyfriend. She’s young, naïve, and desperate for escape. Cherie’s newly engaged mother Marie Harmon (Tatum O'Neal) announces that she’s moving to Indonesia with her fiancé. Cherie’s father, Donald (Brett Cullen), an alcoholic, adds to Cherie’s desire for escape.

At an LA nightclub, Cherie exchanges glances with Joan Jett (Stewart), a punkish, tomboyish rocker. Jett boldly approaches eccentric rock impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Seeing the marketing/branding/financial possibilities inherent in an all-girl rock band, Fowley hooks Jett up with a drummer, Sandy West (Stella Maeve), adds lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), bassist Robin (Alia Shawkat), a fictionalized stand-in for Jackie Fox (rights issues led to the change), and eventually approaches Cherie at a nightclub because he likes her look and attitude.

Fowley sets the girls up in a disused trailer and coaches them in how to handle themselves in front of hostile, mostly male audiences, and turn their rock-star attitudes and “jailbait” sexual appeal to their (and his) advantage.

With zero supervision on the road (Fowley refuses to travel), the underage Jett and Cherie and the other Runaways indulge in alcohol, drugs, and casual sex. The band’s rise, based on their hit single “Cherry Bomb,” leads to a world tour, culminating in sold-out shows in Japan, rabid fans breaking into their hotel room, and Cherie’s collapse from a combination of drugs, alcohol, and exhaustion.

Cherie’s downward journey, a cautionary tale in and of itself, is matched by Jett’s post-Runaways’ career, stopping in the early 80s as Jett’s hit cover of “I Love Rock 'n Roll” takes off. The obligatory “Where are they now?” end credits follow after a desultory reunion (over the phone) for the now estranged Jett and Cherie.

Sigismondi compensates for the limitations inherent in the rock bio formula by mixing in grit and grittiness with the Runaways glam outfits and outrageous behavior. It’s to her considerable credit as a filmmaker that she keeps The Runaways visually engaging, but camera angles, color filters, and editing tricks can only take you so far before the story and characters are expected to kick in.

We learn the most about Cherie, little about Jett, and next-to-nothing about the other members of the Runaways It’s Cherie and Jett’s story, with Cherie exposed for her worst proclivities and Jett managing to keep her head together.

Twilight fans, of course, will eagerly seek out The Runaways for Kristen Stewart and, to a lesser extent, Dakota Fanning, who had a small role in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, with more screen time to come in the sequels. Stewart gets Jett’s swagger, self-confidence, and occasional bluster down, a welcome change from the whiny, self-obsessed character she plays in the Twilight films.

It’s Fanning, though, who really stretches beyond her previous roles. Eager to shed her previous, squeaky clean characters, Fanning throws herself into the self-destructive, insecure, libido-driven, occasionally scantily clad Cherie with surprising abandon. She, like Stewart, may be the rare child star who has a career beyond her teens.