Out of Control
By Sarah Silver
Directed by Floria Sigismondi, U.S., Apparition
Right off the bat, The Runaways asserts itself as a period piece in more ways than one: the year, 1975, is superimposed over the first shot, which draws our attention to a clot of blood that drops like a ripe fruit from in-between a young girl’s slightly parted, mini-skirted thighs. The gams belong to blonde naïf Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and soon after she drops her cherry bomb onto the cement in front of the Pup ‘n’ Fries, we cut to a shop counter elsewhere in L.A., where the dark and determined Joan Larkin (soon to re-christen herself Joan Jett), played by Kristen Stewart, dumps a heavy bag of change on a counter, points to a leather-clad boy, and barks, “Give me what he’s wearing.” Currie is the hapless victim of a feminine rite of passage, while Jett initiates her own reinvention, and the subsequent bird’s eye view of Jett tearing down the street in her new threads sets the unflagging pace for this coming-of-age story draped on the rise and fall of the titular proto–riot grrrl band.
Impressionable teenagers, the girls cannot quite extricate their own malleable personalities from those of their respective rock ‘n’ roll idols: Jett dresses like and constantly quotes rocker Suzi Quatro, while Currie cuts her hair and paints her face to match an androgynous Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie. There is a palpable sense of urgency and rebellion as Jett strums her guitar and growls Quatro lyrics like a feral cat. Meanwhile, Currie, whose emphasis is on fashion and attitude, lip-synchs to Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” at the high school talent show, only to have her choreography jeered, and her expertly procured glam garb sullied by flying food.
The polarized vixens’ inevitable encounter will come later, courtesy of megalomaniacal producer/Sunset Strip gadfly Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), whose dream deferred of assembling an all-girl rock band resurfaces the night he introduces Jett to plucky tomboy drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) outside the English Disco. Soon enough, the band is fleshed out by bassist Jackie Fox (Alia Shawkat) and virtuosic lead shredder and terminal badass Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton). The lineup is complete when Fowley finds his ideal, the 15-year-old Currie, whom he calls the lovechild of Iggy Pop and Brigitte Bardot, sucking on a Mountain Dew at the back of a bar. When the newly formed band kills time at the Hollywood sign, bonding over a homemade concoction West dubs “the dirty sink,” it feels like a universal, genuine moment, and, sadly, it is the only time the young women seem in control, as they will soon cede all their power to master manipulator Fowley, who plays them against each other to stir up controversy that he says is good publicity.
Even if these bundles of raging hormones are generally bitchy and cold to one another, the film, shot on Super 16, has a grainy, vintage warmth. This is matched by the art director’s meticulously crafted color palette of Brady Bunch yellows and Tang oranges, and the stitch-for-stitch replicas of actual Runaways wardrobe pieces. Stewart, who spent several weeks’ worth of take-your-daughter-to-work days shadowing Jett, disappears into the role with reverence. Her vocal inflections mimic Jett’s to an alarming degree, and she has momentarily retired her crutch gestures (bite lower lip, knit brow, run fingers through hair) to adopt mannerisms more akin to the Blackheart’s (furtively dart eyes, slacken jaw to keep mouth permanently agape). But the heart of the movie lies in Fanning’s interpretation of Cherie Currie, a performance that is less imitation-based, and more rooted in the insecurities and self-doubts of a normal teenage girl. This is probably because Currie is the only Runaway whose family we meet, and seeing her home life, as she sasses her mother and placates her envious twin sister, adds another dimension to her character, very different from the wild-child persona she adopts for the band.
Writer/director Floria Sigismondi, a fashion photographer and music scenester whose resume highlight thus far is her clip for Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People,” frequently allows her filmmaking to lapse into fangirl fetishization. Fanning’s Currie, vulnerable and sweet, is often shot with a diffused halo of backlighting, her subdued expressions and gently parted lips evoking a Kids-era Chloë Sevigny. In fact, much of the film has the glossy, lense-flared look of an Urban Outfitters catalogue, an aesthetic that works, especially during the enthralling concert numbers, when Fanning and Stewart sing (very well), and strut their stuff in their perfectly tailored corset and jumpsuit, respectively.
It isn’t hard to predict the trajectory. The dual frontwomen venture deep into the valley of the dolls, goaded by their verbally abusive manager, who lovingly refers to them as “dog cunts” and reminds them that men don’t want to see women on stage, and that, in fact, they don’t want to see women anywhere except “in their kitchens or on their knees.” For a movie attempting to shove female sexuality in your face (there is a clumsy scene where Jett coaches a fellow band mate on the proper way to masturbate), the filmmakers are shockingly silent when it comes to the subject of Currie's mid-tour abortion, which she talks about frankly in the earlier documentary Edgeplay. The drama inherent to such an advent would have perfectly matched the film's putative theme of the relationship between, as Fowley puts it, “women's lib and women's libido,” but instead the focus falls on the easier-to-glamorize subject of drug addiction.
The girls seek solace in any substance they can find to abuse, and the higher they get, the more lackadaisical the cinematographer gets with his focus. By the time Jett kisses Currie, we are seeing everything through a stylized purple haze. There is an undeniable chemistry between real-life BFFs Fanning and Stewart, and I hoped the story would take a female Brideshead Revisited turn, with the out-and-proud Jett longing for her curious but confused partner. Alas, ultimately no credence is given to genuine feelings, but rather all sexual curiosity is chalked up to drug-induced stupors and callow states of youth. The morning after, following some brief but tender horseplay, Currie goes back to the arms of her roadie boyfriend and never, at least in this version, looks back. The real life Currie is just as shallow, confessing in Edgeplay that her main motivation behind the sexual experimentation was that she knew Bowie was bisexual: “I was such a Bowie fan, I had to check that out.”