Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Written & Directed By Floria Sigismondi
Featuring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart
Summary: In Floria Sigismondi’s new film The Runaways, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart play archetypes: two wide-eyed innocents, fractured halves of one whole, negotiating the drug-fueled, gender-bending, mind-blowing ‘70s.
How much is historically true? Who cares? The Runaways is a feature film, not a documentary, and what moved me most were the performances. That said, writer/director Floria Sigismondi and her team have all worked very hard to capture The Runaways’ actual milieu.
Countless films have depicted the role rock music played in breaking down racial barriers, now Sigismondi has done the same for feminism. And though their brilliant portrayals of Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart will now inspire a whole new generation of girls. Bravo!
Floria Sigismondi’s new film The Runaways is a fairy tale about two teenagers on the cusp of womanhood. Yes, it’s based on Cherie Currie’s memoir Neon Angel, and yes, it depicts real events in the lives of Currie and her Runaways band mate Joan Jett, but the strength of this film lies in its evocation of archetypes not its recreation of history.
Just like in the Brothers Grimm classic Snow-White and Rose-Red, “Cherie” (Dakota Fanning) is a somewhat passive blonde, whereas “Joan” (Kristen Stewart) is a more adventurous brunette. They find each other in a Los Angeles punk club in 1975 when they’re both 15 years old. Cherie has tarted up with provocative clothing and heavy make-up; Joan has turned androgynous in a stylized biker outfit. They’re complements, two wide-eyed innocents who are fractured halves of one whole. Eyes lock in the crowd; there’s an immediate connection, but they’re both too reticent to act on it.
The catalyst who bonds them together is rock impresario “Kim Foley” (Michael Shannon). Joan has been teaching herself to play electric guitar and when she meets Foley, he sees dollar signs. First he connects her with drummer “Sandy West” (Stella Maeve), and when he’s sure they can really play, he sets out in search of a lead singer. He spots Cherie though the smoke-filled haze and Joan’s whole face lights up. Bingo! Add two more guitars (Scout Taylor-Compton playing “Lita Ford” and Alia Shawkat playing a fictional composite character named “Robin”), and rock’s first successful all-girl group snaps into place.
But first hours of practice in a decrepit trailer, while Foley screams, threatens and cajoles. Sometimes he mocks and humiliates them, other times he seduces them with soft words and pseudo-concern. Step-by-step, they advance from house parties to road trips, then a record deal, and finally a climactic tour in Japan. And all the while, the bond between Cherie and Joan grows ever stronger.
How much of this is historically true? Who cares? The Runaways is a feature film, not a documentary. What moved me most were the performances. We’ve all watched these two girls grow up on screen. Dakota Fanning has been a star since the age of 7 when she played Sean Penn’s daughter “Lucy” in I Am Sam in 2001. Kristen Stewart has also spent years in high profile projects (starting with the role of Jodi Foster’s daughter “Sarah” in Panic Room in 2002), recently breaking through as “Bella” in the phenomenally successful Twilight saga. Like the characters they play in The Runaways, Fanning and Stewart are both at a perilous age now. Can they leave childhood behind and become women on screen? Leaving the theatre after The Runaways, my answer is a resounding yes!
Playing Cherie, Fanning gives an aggressive, gutsy, “in your face” performance. Her edge is so sharp that sometimes she almost draws blood. But raw scenes of her strutting on stage as “Cherie Bomb” are counterbalanced by tender scenes at home with her twin sister “Marie” (Riley Keough). There’s a moment near the end when Joan calls her “a bruised peach,” and it’s a perfect description.
Stewart’s performance as Joan is more interior but ultimately just as charismatic. She must convince us that she’s watching and thinking and learning every minute of every day, and she does. After all, if we know anything historical coming into this film, we know it will be Joan Jett, not Cherie Currie, who eventually makes it into the top echelon of the Rock ‘n Roll pantheon with her next band Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Of course, even though I sincerely believe that historicity in itself is ultimately irrelevant in a feature film, that doesn’t mean that director Floria Sigismondi and her team haven’t all worked very hard to capture The Runaways’ actual milieu. In fact, they’ve scrupulously recreated the look and feel of the mid-70s from a feminist perspective. And Cherie Currie and Joan Jett both made themselves fully available to the team, most especially to the two young actresses portraying them.
Me, I never got anywhere close to the belly of the Rock ‘n Roll beast, but I am the right age to remember how it all appeared from the sidelines. This was a time of political turmoil all around the world, and people experimented with new social and sexual identities by literally painting them on. Girls who really wanted to “be somebody” had no choice but to reach out for male role models: in The Runaways, Cherie mimics David Bowie while Joan transforms herself into a mini-Marlon Brando.
In addition to directing, Sigismondi also wrote the screenplay, and she peppers it with dozens of tiny revealing incidents. Joan pays a teacher for electric guitar lessons, but after taking her money, he still insists girls can only play soft acoustic. When Cherie appears on stage for the first time, her classmates abuse her. Kim Foley hires local kids to impersonate hecklers; disgusting as these boys are, The Runaways’ real crowds are far worse than the simulation. These moments combine to add cumulative force.
I remember; I was there. Growing up in the ‘60s, I had books about Joan of Arc on the one hand and images of countless wives and mothers on the other. I knew nurse and teacher were the only professions most women could aspire to—even most Catholic nuns were either nurses or teachers.
But Joan Jett really was one of the women who changed all of that forever. I loved watching her on MTV in the ‘80s (one of the only women I ever saw on MTV in the ‘80s), and I can easily picture myself, thrilled and exhilarated, dancing around my room in wild abandon. Joan Jett’s voice gave me courage then; she still gives me courage today. And though their brilliant portrayals of Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart will now inspire a whole new generation of girls.
Countless films have depicted the role rock music played in breaking down racial barriers, now Sigismondi has done the same for feminism. Bravo!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (3/19/10) Special for WomenArts
Photo credit: David Moir. Courtesy of Apparition.