This film had the potential to be great: a coming of age tale about a beautiful young girl who is suddenly drafted into the American dream only to be chewed up and spit out before getting her feet off the ground. Familiar story, yes, but a powerful one which would have worked well against a rock n’ roll backdrop. The story exists somewhere in the mess which is The Runaways, buried beneath a sea of corny dialogue and inane subplots. This film is one huge distraction from its mediocre screenplay. There are music montages, concert performances and random musical breaks littering the screen from the very beginning and it becomes exhausting quickly, especially considering how dreadful the actual music is. Somebody should have told writer/director Floria Sigismondi that she was making a MOVIE, not a music video.
Here’s the skeleton of the plot: Cherri Currie (Dakota Fanning) is a young girl living in Los Angeles who is constantly surrounded by sex and alcohol. She has seen these vices take a great toll on her family and friends, especially her father, who is an alcoholic dead-beat. At the same time, young rebel Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) wanders the city streets with a dream of becoming a rock star. The ambitious Jett convinces scummy music producer Kim Fowley to help her start her own group. Fowley, who recognizes this as an opportunity to exploit fresh young talent, embraces Jett and forms a band around her, a band which is completed by the addition of Cherri as the singer. Good girl Cherri is initially taken aback by the raunchy lyrics she’s asked to sing, but after a while Fowley and the other band members peer pressure her into singing them. Soon enough, Cherri becomes so consumed with the debauchery and decadence of rock star life that she abandons her morals completely and becomes a helpless victim of sex and drug abuse.
As I mentioned before, the music video style of this film is distracting and annoying at times, but the one critical error which manages to drag it down considerably is its confusion as to where to focus its story. The writers must have been torn as to what direction to take their film: whether it should be a rock n’ roll bio-pic focusing on the Runaways as a band, or a coming-of-age saga focusing solely on the singer Cheri Currie (whose auto-biography the screenplay is based on). Instead of coming to an actual creative decision, the writers went down both roads, focusing on both Cherri Currie and, to a lesser extent, Joan Jett at the same time.
Bad move. The sequences focusing on Jett seem peripheral and detrimental to the flow of the film, whereas the scenes featuring Cherri Currie seem to shine with greater depth and accuracy. Gee, I wonder why? Could it be because her story was based on another source (her auto-biography)? Yes, I would wager so. Eventually (and thankfully), the film abandons whatever Joan Jett story arc the writers were trying to establish to focus solely on Cherri Currie ( maybe because they ran out of ideas). Obviously, the film would have benefitted if its focus was exclusive to Currie from the beginning, but they just had to shove in an inane Joan Jett story (“Girls can’t play guitar!” “Oh yeah, I’ll show you!”) in order to appeal to a wider audience.
The decision to cast Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as the leads inspired some undeserved controversy when it was announced, but they gave some good performances despite the confused screenplay. It seemed like they were using this film solely for the purpose of shedding their ‘good girl’ images, but after seeing the actual film I was impressed by their work. They prepared for their roles by rehearsing Runaway songs for a whole month, which is funny because they probably practiced more than the original band.
Overall, the film suffers greatly from a weak screenplay, a lack of clarity, and an ill-fitting tone. What could have been a great film about disillusionment with the American dream was instead turned into a late-night VH1 special. This film is like an AC/DC shirt for sale at WAL-MART; it has no soul or purpose, it just… exists.