Runaways or, The Dakota Fanning in a Corset Movie

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews
Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 9:12 pm
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"Jail fucking bait!" exclaims record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) upon learning his new find, blonde bad girl Cherrie Currie (Dakota Fanning), is only 15. "Jack fucking pot!"

This line got a huge laugh at last night's Sundance premiere of rock biopic Runaways. It sums up a certain kind of Hollywood thinking, and is simultaneously a fine example of why this crowd-pleaser would never be produced by a major studio (it will be released by Apparition, Bob Berney's newish indie distributor).

Underage girls are big business -- this is why Fanning and Stewart, both involved with the Twilight franchise, are considered bankable names -- but at the same time, media made for the teen girl market almost never acknowledges the uglier truth of their budding desires. The first image in Runaways is of a splatter of red menstrual blood on pavement, and from there on out, writer/director Floria Sigismondi concentrates on the power, beauty and tragedy of the teen girl libido unleashed. Runaways tells us that fifteen year old girls want to do nothing but get fucked up and fuck, and have a completely rational hatred for everyone except for the few people they desperately want to get fucked up with and fuck. Not only that, but the film has an uncommon interest in the commodity value of teen sexuality, and the gray area between empowerment and exploitation.



At Rodney's English Disco (Keir O'Donnell's impersonation of the legendary LA DJ Rodney Bingenheimer is hilarious), a young Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) meets Fowlie, who she recognizes as a big time record producer. Fowley is intrigued by Joan's determination to start an all-girl rock band. He recognizes that the androgyny of glam that has all the male rock stars "wearing dresses and leaving their lipstick on each other's cocks" has created a wide-open niche for a band full of sexually aggressive--but too young to be sexually threatening--chicks.  "This isn't about women's lib, kiddie," goes one of his many inspirational lectures. "This is about women's libido."

Fowley describes the Runaways as "the sound of hormones raging," and for long stretches, Sigismondi's film offers a loose, unhurried illustration of manic teen lust panic. From braless KStew packing a vodka-filled water pistol in her leather waistband, to Fanning "finding [her] cock" via a burlesque get-up of gartered stockings and corset, these teen stars (Stewart and Fanning are 19 and 15, respectively) are unapologetically sexualized, which is, well, fucking sexy, and also morally problematic. Which is exactly the point.

A music video director by trade (she's worked with Marilyn Manson, White Stripes, and Christina Aguilera, among others) Sigismondi imbues Runaways with the color saturation and roving camera of a music video...and the narrative logic to match. She puts together a hell of an elliptical vignette, which is almost sufficient to fully distract from the fact that her scenes that should be emotional knock-outs largely feel strangely cold, and the backbone of her script is pure sex, drugs and rock n' roll cliché.

Those cliches are not necessarily something to complain about; shallow though it may be, Runaways offers a kind of guttural rock film pleasure that's been in short supply in the decade-plus since Trainspotting. Sigismondi can sometimes lean too heavily on source cues, from Suzi Quatro to "It's a Man's World," for emotional value, but she proves she knows when to turn down the noise with a devastatingly uncomfortable scene soundtracked only by the creaking sound of Fanning's silver leather jacket. And let's hope Apparition has plans to market the shit out of a soundtrack album--much of the music in this film should be taught to every child in school.

After the screening, Jett and Sigismondi offered the standard complaint about the lack of role models for young women looking to compete in still-boy-dominated arenas like rock n' roll. But the movie, despite Jett's clearly active involvement, short-shrifts the star's actual accomplishments. Her post-Runaways career-rebuilding process is depicted as some wasted mooning about her dingy apartment, followed by bouncing around on a bed wearing a guitar and underwear. Suddenly, she's wearing a ridiculous blazer on Rodney's radio show and playing tracks from the first Blackhearts album, with no mention of the fact that she had to start her own record label in order to release "I Love Rock n' Roll," her biggest hit. Runaways is refreshingly honest and explicit about teen girl self-destruction and their complicated sexual power, but it's frustratingly slight when given an opportunity to show girls taking control of something other than their bodies. 
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