Grrrls, grrrls, grrrls

The Runaways

Who’s the star: Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie (left) or Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett?

Who’s the star: Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie (left) or Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett?

Rated 4.0

Kristen Stewart gets top billing in writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways, but the central performance comes from Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie—understandably, since Sigismondi’s script is adapted from Currie’s autobiography Neon Angel, about her years with the seminal rock band of the movie’s title.

It’s 1975 Los Angeles, and we see an assortment of teenage girls and a slick would-be power player drifting toward each other like particles in space trying to coalesce into a planet. Joan Larkin (Stewart), already sporting her new name, Joan Jett, bridles at a guitar lesson where the teacher blandly tells her “Girls don’t play electric guitar,” and tries to force her into a cornball rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey.” Meanwhile, in the San Fernando Valley, Fanning’s Cherie Currie stumbles hesitantly through a lip sync to a David Bowie song at her high-school talent show, finally flipping her jeering audience a double bird.

Later, outside a club, Joan approaches Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a sort of celebrity in the L.A. rock scene, as Fowley just happens to be casting around for the next big thing, and Joan’s idea of an all-girl rock band just might be it. He hooks Joan up with drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and tells them to get in touch when they’ve got some music to show him. Later, hearing some of their garage-grunge improvisations over the phone, he bellows: “Have you girls been practicing? Well, get back to it, because you’re gonna be bigger than the fuckin’ Beatles.”

Finally, Fowley spots Cherie and likes her look, summoning her to audition for the new band. (The scene is an amusing echo of Stan Freberg’s “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” when promoter Barney Schlock approaches a teenager on the street: “Hey kid, can you sing?” “No.” “Good, come with me.”) At the audition, Fowley browbeats Cherie into the kind of angry growl he and the band are looking for, and the Runaways are ready to hit the road.

There were other Runaways: guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Micki Steele at the beginning. Ford is played in the movie by Scout Taylor-Compton, while Steele is never mentioned by name—perhaps because she left the band on bad terms before going on to join the Bangles. But for Floria Sigismondi’s purposes, the only characters who matter are Cherie Currie, Kim Fowley and, to a lesser extent, Joan Jett.

Especially Cherie Currie, and The Runaways is almost a breakout vehicle for Dakota Fanning—if we can talk about a “breakout” for someone who’s been making movies practically since she was in the womb. Here, Fanning shows not a trace of the precocious Hollywood cutie pie that was her stock in trade five or six years ago, when she was in every third movie that came out. Her Cherie is quiet, almost withdrawn when not onstage (it sounds odd late in the movie when Lita Ford complains about “Cherie’s ego problems”), and scenes between Cherie and her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough) have an artful artlessness to them, as if we were seeing not actresses but the real girls playing themselves and a little awkward in front of the camera.

Dakota Fanning, awkward? Please. This is clearly a deliberate stylistic choice, and it meshes well with the docudrama milieu Sigismondi adopts for her first feature film, showing ’70s punk-rock L.A. in all its sun-splashed gritty defiance.

In many ways, the bellowing gadfly Kim Fowley is the movie’s most interesting character, even though the Runaways fired him as manager after only two years. (Hey, movie-trivia fans, here’s a juicy factoid: The real Kim is the son of actor Douglas Fowley, who played the harried director in Singin’ in the Rain.) Why did Fowley take on this band of jailbait hotties; was he really just looking for a band to manage? If he had any other motives (Micki Steele had her take on them), the movie leaves them a teasing question mark, even as Shannon’s brazen performance dominates every scene he’s in.

The Runaways has an intriguing outsider’s view of the ’70s L.A. rock scene from the Italian Sigismondi, a bravura turn from Shannon, and a subtly assured performance from Fanning (like Kurt Russell and Jodie Foster before her, this child actress seems to grow into her talent rather than out of it). Even Kristen Stewart is pretty interesting. No, really.