I love it when a film surprises me; it’s my favorite thing about being a critic. This year’s South by Southwest film festival saw the regional premiere of The Runaways a biopic of the titular all-girl rock band from the late '70s starring Dakota Fanning as lead singer Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as guitarist Joan Jett. Having despised the Twilight films and doubting seriously that Stewart could act her way out of a paper bag I expected to hate this film. But what I saw from her turned out to be the biggest surprise of the festival.
I have to admit I was completely wrong about Stewart’s ability to play the goddess of punk. Stewart clearly did her homework because she is fantastic. It’s not just the eerie physical resemblance; Stewart inhabits Jett with every movement she makes. In her first few scenes the lines coming out of her mouth sounded more petulant than rebellious and I was worried. But as the movie progresses the character begins to communicate more with movement than with words and it is phenomenal. The strongest part about her performance is that she captures Joan’s raw uncompromising love for rock music.
Fanning plays Cherie with such fearless discovery that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her as she slowly discards her suburban shell and embraces the rock diva within her. Every decision she makes seems designed to reject the cutesy teen girl archetype which parallels the struggle of this pioneering punk band. Then again has anyone ever doubted the abilities of Fanning? We can try to keep her locked in a child-actor box and criticize her inflated sexual awakening but that viewpoint is not only hypocritical it criminally underestimates her talent.
As well-crafted as Fanning's and Stewart's performances are the actor who really steals this movie is Michael Shannon who plays the band's producer Kim Fowley. To say the real Fowley was a larger-than-life personality doesn’t even scratch the surface of his presence. He is a whirlwind of vulgarity and an unstoppable publicity genius. Shannon approaches the role with the kind of uninhibited mania that most actors aspire to but few can pull off without drifting into caricature. Fowley may be outrageous but Shannon keeps the character just grounded enough that given the frenzied zeitgeist of the late '70s you have no trouble believing this guy really existed just as he appears on screen.
As impressive as its performances are The Runaways is by no means a perfect film. Its storytelling and framing of events mimic the paint-by-numbers formula of the standard rock rise-and-fall tale strictly adhering to the basic biopic beat structure right down to the requisite montages. The biggest disappointment about the film is it fails to illustrate clearly the rift between Cherie and Joan that developed after the band broke up. The eventual estrangement is only touched upon at the end when we're told it resulted from of a personal falling out between the two women. It is strikingly incongruent to the events we’ve seen and demonstrates a real weakness in the script. As a result the ending feels abrupt and unsatisfying.