Dressed like a Space Oddity-era David Bowie with a Brigitte Bardot pout, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) stumbles from teenage talent shows to back alley clubs and fortuitously into the line of sight of record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). Intrigued by her look, the two invite her to audition for their band, an all-girl outfit bent on putting the dirty back into rock 'n' roll. It's an awkward fit that in real life bloomed into a musical force, but in Floria Sigismondi's biopic The Runaways, this translates into 100 minutes of teenagers balancing adolescent priorities.
The raucous spirit of the band that was The Runaways is rendered through moody cinematography, expressionistic editing and exceptional production design, but the unfortunate payoff is the mawkish smack of coming-of-age cliché and cautionary wisdom. It's like a music video with a moral coda that's all too familiar. Throughout the film, enigmatic individuals are collapsed into cardboard characters. Stewart's Jett skulks around with shoulders drooping and bangs in her eyes, only glaring up to prod someone about her guitar skills or to pounce on them for sex. Lita Ford comes off as a harpy, while Sandy West, a co-founder of the group, is brushed over as some Cali-girl drummer with a chip on her shoulder. Other band members are portrayed as totally inconsequential. Currie is the spotlight, but even she suffers from this utilitarian depiction. She is an overlooked daughter, a sexual object, a drug addict.
For all the ways these burgeoning rock 'n' roll mavens struggle to get attention, they spend most of the film dealing with and spinning out from contact with the wrong kind. "This isn't about women's lib, it's about women's libido," Fowley assures the sweaty gaggle of girls, and he couldn't be more wrong—at least in the context of the film. Awkwardly exploring their sexuality or embracing objectification, Currie and the girls come to confront the powerlessness of that libido without liberation. They may have assumed the role of Queens of Noise, but they've done so with a man and a record company eager to exploit them. The film's failure to explore that tension—especially given today's DIY climate of independent music—is awfully old-fashioned. The film's focus on the relationship between Currie and Jett is tedious. Instead of rooting for real women, we're left to watch two starlets fumble with irrelevant interpersonal drama. If only because of its feminist subtext, the film's not a total clunker, but don't expect any new angle on the evils of success that you couldn't catch on VH1.