Sundance: Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning rock out in 'The Runaways,' but the movie itself is no knockout

From the moment I arrived at Sundance, the movie that more or less everyone, including me, wanted to see most was The Runaways — and not just because it offered the chance to see whether Kristen Stewart, as Joan Jett, could leave her swoony Twilight mopiness behind her and play a rock & roll princess with down-and-dirty spunk. (Verdict: She can.) It’s also because the Runaways, a packaged group of choppy-haired teen-glam feline punkettes from L.A. who, in 1976, did for girls playing power chords what the Sex Pistols did for beer-spewing anarchy, may seem cooler now than they did then. In hindsight, they blazed quite a trail, but they didn’t have many good songs — and even their best one, “Cherry Bomb,” never quite broke free of their jailbait novelty-act image.

The most entertaining thing about the movie is that its writer-director, music-video veteran Floria Sigismondi (making her feature debut), has a sixth sense for how the Runaways were an image first and a rock & roll band second. Early on, we see Stewart’s black-shag-haired Joan in an L.A. boutique, where she has to coerce the sales woman into selling her a man’s studded biker jacket, which she wears as if born to it. Stewart’s no-frills, casually likable performance begins with Jett’s distinctive tough-girl saunter — which is to say, the actress knows just how to walk like a skinny dude. At the same time, we meet Cherie Currie (first name pronounced Sher-ee), who chops her platinum-blonde mane into a David Bowie shag, paints on the facial lightning streak from his Aladdin Sane cover, and lip-syncs to him at a high school talent show, which results in her being pelted with wads of paper.

These girls, it’s clear, have their underground fashion bona fides down. But it takes Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the noted record producer who becomes their psycho Svengali, to teach them how to rock out like boys. Fowley, who favors red-leather jackets and dog collars the size of tiaras, is a hyped-up hustler-manipulator who looks like a punk Frankenstein and shouts everything as if in mid-tantrum. He’s a ruthless creep, a kind of jadedly oversexed type-A head case, but he knows what sells. He finds Cherie in a nightclub, immediately placing her in the band as if he were casting a porno film. The fact that she’s only 15 is, to him, icing on the bad-girl cake.

There’s a fun scene set in the girls’ grungy rehearsal trailer, where Fowley, with a little help from Joan, makes up “Cherry Bomb” on the spot (“Hello, daddy! Hello, mom! I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!”), and he teaches Cherie how to sing it…nasty. Beneath her postures, she’s supposed to be a sweet, quiet girl who loves Peggy Lee and Don McLean, but she learns how to snarl and wiggle her crotch. Then Fowley teaches the girls to brace themselves for hecklers, and to fight back. At a concert in Japan, they’re in full flower, and you can feel the electric pull of what’s new about these girls co-opting the male-hormonal thrust of rock and making it their own.

When it gets away from the stage, however, and from the iconography of strutting she-devil-in-lingerie empowerment, The Runaways is just a watchable, rather so-so rock biopic, with the thinly imagined characters and desultory, one-thing-after-another episodic slackness of a TV movie. Granted, there’s a special challenge in bringing this story to life: The Runaways were really just little girls who fed themselves into a giant, buzz-saw machine of image and marketing, all ruled over, of course, by Fowley, the gonzo manager-producer from hell. So they’re really passive vessels in their own story. But The Runaways turns them passive in a different way: They’re made so likable and innocent and quaintly brash that they don’t fully have egos, erotic or otherwise. Stewart, in black eyeliner, nails Jett’s sinewy attitude, but Joan’s sexual proclivities are treated in a teasing, music-video way. I mean, why be so coy in a movie that’s supposed to be a rowdy celebration of a new kind of audacious feminine sexual power?

But then, Joan is really just the side player here. The Runaways is fashioned as Cherie Currie’s story — and the little bite-size conflicts provided for her, though they may be rooted in fact, aren’t fleshed out in a convincing way. She squabbles, tiresomely, with her twin sister (Danielle Riley Keough), and when Fowley forces her to do a solo cheesecake photo shoot for a magazine, Joan blows up at her for selling out the band’s image. Excuse me, but does Joan understand what the band is selling? Cherie falls into drug and alcohol addiction, but the script is so scattershot that Dakota Fanning’s performance ends up a little all over the place. She’s a Bowie freak, a soft-rock innocent, a dissolute addict, a nice girl in over her head — and with all that going on, she never even raises her voice. The Runaways shows you that the Runaways were authentic — if packaged — stars, and that they were victimized for being ahead of their time. As a band, the movie gives them their due, but as individuals it doesn’t make them interesting.

More from Owen Gleiberman at Sundance 2010:
Blue Valentine: Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams shine in soulful, wrenching marital drama
Sundance 2010 documentaries: Casino Jack and the United States of Money; Smash His Camera; Restrepo
The Company Men: A juicy drama of downsized corporate executives
Howl and Nowhere Boy: The fascinating early days of Allen Ginsberg and John Lennon
Sundance 2010: Change you can believe in?

More from EW at Sundance 2010:
Sundance 2010: Exclusive star portraits from the EW photo studio
Ryan Reynolds’ Buried sold to Lionsgate

Comments (118 total) Add your comment
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  • Lola

    Insightful review, I’ve been reading them all night like a twihard freak. lol This one seems to ring true.

    • Kristen

      Seems to ring true? Have you actually watched the film yet? How would you know if it “rings true?”

      • Ben

        K-Stew? Is that you???

  • Nick T

    Yay Kristen Stewart! I don’t care for Twilight but she’s awesome. This “review” backs up what I assumed from the trailer.

    • Erin

      I’m not big on Twilight either, but I knew that Kristen Stewart could pull off this movie. She just has that vibe, even in interviews occasionally.

      • Kate

        I’m not big on Twilight, and after seeing her in Adventureland (where she was basically Bella without the vampire love), I had huge doubts she could pull this off. I had doubts as to whether she could do anything other than bite her lip and look sullen, with a half-smile thrown in occasionally. Very happy to be proven wrong; good for her.

      • Mary Q. Contrary

        Hello? Did you actually see Adventureland? I thought she was pretty terrific, especially in the scene where she pulls off her stepmom’s wig. That was a really good performance, and I think I’ll just sit back and relax until the day comes when you all finally admit you were wrong and she’s a formidable talent.

      • boss


        I watched Adventureland and I have to disagree with Kate. It wasn’t Bella it was Kristen who you saw there and not anyone else. We also saw Kristen in Twilight and New Moon and we probably see it also in Runaways. But surely never the character she’s supposed to portray.

    • Catch that Kid fan

      She’s definitely hittable, but I’m not a fan of the dark hair

  • Jaclyn

    I disagree with the review from EW

    So many critics and ppl who went to see this at sundance said it was a knockout movie it was great and kristen & dakota do fantastic in the movie.

    • Jaclyn’s mom

      But you didn’t see it yourself? Good thing you can form a complete opinion with actually seeing it. At least Owen watched it.

      • Face Hitter Supreme

        Yeah, and have you ever read Owen’s reviews? They are biased and borderline awful.

      • Dwight Schrute

        Owen is the worst reviewer this side of Devin Faraci.

      • Gabby

        Um? Film reviews are by nature biased. They reflect the film critic’s OPINION.

      • Celia

        I agree. There’s no such thing as a non-biased review. They’re all going to be different, because all the critics have different opinions and like different types of films. Some of them are paid to give films favorable reviews, so your best bet is to watch it yourself. From the clips I’ve seen, it doesn’t look that great. The acting from Dakota and Kristen seems mediocre. However, Michael Shannon is great. I was kind of hoping they would cast Ellen Page as Joan Jett.

  • Bonnie

    I PERSONALLY went to the Sundance premiere in Utah an from first hand, this movies was fantastic. I loved Kristen since Speak (2004)and Dakota in Push. Three Words: Please Watch it.

    • Mary Q. Contrary

      Really? Because I don’t think you did.

    • Celia

      Dakota in Push?…okay….

      • fred

        Dakota F. was great in push…it was a really good movie.

    • Di

      To anyone who says Kristen Stewart can’t act I tell to go watch Speak… that being said, she really doesn’t seem to act in the Twilight movies.

      • boss

        Then you should probably watch her other movies and don’t always remember a movie she did when she was a kid.

  • putanotherdimeinjukeboxbaby

    I will definitely be seeing this film

  • gertie

    funny (like not) that this movie review is not appreciative at all that this is a rock and roll movie of teenage GIRLs. Who were making a scene long before John, Paul, etc. were at that age. Yet, the other movie has a lot more sympathy and seemingly respect for the subject.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am a diehard Beatle fan, but this review sounds like misogyny to me. Doesn’t want to like a young female band movie. Boohoo.

    • jodipo

      ok, I am not sure what you are saying here… but if your comparing the runaways to the beatles you need to take a breath and come back to reality.

      FIRST: if you are saying that the runaways were out making music before the Beatles you are obviously wrong.

      SECOND: if you are saying that the ages of the females when they went through their formation (as documented in this movie) is younger than with the beatles your wrong again. Harrison was 14, john was 16, and paul was 15 when they started playing pubs together in england.

      get your facts straight before you go making a fool of yourself in public

  • Pete

    People should know better by now than to expect anything from a movie with Kristen Stewart. She’s a horrible actress, sorry but she brings nothing to the screen.

    • Re:Pete

      You’re just mad because she woouldn’t go to Prom with you

      • anna

        Pete is saying that because KS is a horrible actress. She plays the same person in every role and doesn’t necessarily do it well.

      • Gabby

        This review proves otherwise. And she was fantastic in “Into the Wild.”

      • Mary Q. Contrary

        I think it’s ridiculous to say that. I’ve seen her in Panic Room, Speak, Zathura, Into the Wild, Adventureland, The Cake Eaters, and Twilight. And while I only left a couple of those experiences appreciating the actual film (Adventureland and Into the Wild), I definitely noticed that the girl can most certainly act, does not play the same character over and over (watch The Cake Eaters if you’re not in tune with subtlety and absolutely need a total 180 to convince you), and is so obviously interested in her craft. It’s just downright ignorant to base your opinion on one or two performances. So she couldn’t get inside the mind of Bella Swan? I don’t think many people could. She’s a completely one-dimensional character with no personality, interests, or hobbies of her own. How exactly do you base a performance on a character that’s just basically used as a scene prop for the other characters in the story?

      • boss


        Panic Room: weird kind of neurotic girl with problems
        Speak: weird depressed girl with problems
        Into the Wild: weird kind of neurotic girl who wants to sleep with someone
        Adventureland: weird kind of neurotic girl who sleeps with Ryan Reynolds
        Cake Eaters: weird girl who wants to sleep with a guy from school
        Twilight: weird kind of neurotic girl (she was supposed to be a happy girl and not depressed)

        And now the last two movies:
        Runaways: weird rocker girl girl
        Welcome to the Rilyes: weird girl who wants to sleep with others for money.

        I see a muster. And now the description of Kristen Stewart’s personality: weird kind of neurotic kind of depressed girl.

    • Trish

      Well, her performance in Welcome to the Rileys at Sundance received rave reviews from sources such as The Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

    • Kate

      I agree, she wasted 2 hours of my life with that crappy adventureland, all she did was play a Bella type of character, and from what im hearing from all critics about this is that shes again playing the same character, they have all raved about Dakota Fanning so i will go and see it for her becasue she is a brilliant actress!

    • ?

      pete, is anna your wife now?

  • Shamrock

    I will see the movie but wary of Kristen Stewart’s acting but I think she has the look down. I just don’t want a theater full of Twinerds.

    • maiv

      Yeah, she definitely has the requisite dirty rocker look in the trailer

    • brittany

      its TWI_HARDS not twinerds get it strait

      • CZ

        It’s “It’s” and “straight”, not “its” and “strait”.

        Besides, it’s Twitards.

      • Courtney

        Actually, I think it’s Twidiots.

      • Celia

        I prefer twiboogers.

  • Sia

    I disagree with this article because I too have seen the film and I thought it was great and the performances from Kristen and Dakota were real.
    SHAMROCK and Twilight haters-

    • jazzy

      Who are you yelling at, idiot???

      • donkeyDork

        Yo MOMMA!!!

    • brody

      That’s the point, I think. If the movie has to rely on Stewart’s tweenybopper fanbase to sell tickets, then it’s probably not very good.

      • Hannah

        “That’s the point, I think. If the movie has to rely on Stewart’s tweenybopper fanbase to sell tickets, then it’s probably not very good.”
        Bingo. Stewart needs to get a fan base outside of the Twihard fandom, or no one will care what she does once the Twilight fad inevitably ends (and it will).

  • Kass

    This movie won’t do good with the Twilight fans so haters shut up already.

    • Sara

      it won’t do well* . I think it’s you that needs to shut up.

    • Celia

      I don’t think the twilight fans will go see it. They didn’t go see any of the other films Robert and Kristen were in except Twilight. That’s all they care about. This film will NOT do well in the theaters (money wise), unless it gets lucky. I have no urge to see it. I might give Welcome to the Rileys a shot even though it kind of sounds like a ripoff of “Running With Scissors” or “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

      • Katie

        Definitely agree with Celia. Where’s this “Twilight fan support” for Stewart that I keep hearing about? It sure as hell didn’t help Adventureland make that much money. I’m also curious to see how Remember Me does. Something tells me that Pattinson and Stewart’s appeal is going to turn out to be pretty one-note.

  • Klint

    I think the ‘influence’ of The Runaways has been massively exaggerated anyway, and it sounds like the movie believes the hype it so wants to recreate. Apart from the fact that most people would struggle to think of a single song by them, how many really successful all-girl rock bands have we seen in recent times? I’m scratching my head..

    • Gabby

      Is your point that women CAN’T rock, or that they are exceedingly less likely to start a rock band in the first place which is why they are so woefully underrepresented?

  • gertie

    I hate that the men in the real old rock ages were so horrible, but when Linda Rondstadt make the front cover of Time magazine, her band members said they hated having a female lead.

    • brocas

      Relevant… how?

  • Lia

    I’ll see it for myself and judge it then

  • Davidsask

    It sounds well acted but also TV movie worthy so not really shocked here. It won’t be a blockbuster but an indie standout and dvd find!

  • TDeo

    I haven’t seen the movie, but you are wrong about the Runaways’ music. They had a number of GREAT songs, and their “Live in Japan” album is excellent!

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