Biopics, especially music biopics, follow so rigid a structure, it’s easy to assume they’re manufactured. Highlights are covered: formation, the rise to stardom, in-fighting and complications (often drug use), the fall and return–messy, complicated life reduced to a five-act structure. Discussions of these movies tend to revolve around how well actors imitate the people they’re portraying, rather than anything said about the subject. Almost as much as superhero movies (especially Marvel superhero movies), authorial voice is flattened out into product. Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways operates in this milieu, but is aggressive against the form, its director refusing to be silenced.
Using 16mm, Sigismondi recreates the sun-blasted grime of 70s L.A. City streets are blinding orange, nightclubs flood with hazy red. The camera whips and zooms, pans and tracks, energy as unsettled as the Runaways’ music. Narrative focus is split between singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart), drawn together into rock history. Their counterpoint is producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, sleazing it up). He regards the band as a gimmick to exploit, mock, degrade, and pit against each other. Cherie is a favorite target, building her up as the jailbait face of the group (he arranges a leering photoshoot), before dismissing her as a diva who does what he tells her to do. After the break up, he remarks in an interview: “In a few years, they’ll all be living in a trailer park in the valley. Fat, pregnant and happy as fleas on a dog.”
Sigismondi seems especially mindful of her leads–Fanning, the former child star growing up; Stewart, the female face of the blockbuster YA franchise Twilight, who’d rather do real acting. Neither taken seriously as actors in the public forum, only as commodities due to youth, gender, and appearance. The expectation is they play the characters which made them famous. Here, they get to grow. Rebel. Shout “fuck” and piss on an asshole’s guitar for slagging them. More importantly, they survive and succeed despite a system pushing them to failure.
Currie is introduced during her first period, outside a burger joint, the camera closed in on Fanning’s leg as blood trails down. Fanning plays her as restrained, back always straightened and poised (mimicking Tatum O’Neal as Cherie’s overbearing, image conscious mother). She regards the Runaways as a gig, a performance, a chance to grow herself as an individual outside her troubled family life. Consequently, as her commitment increases, she all but neglects her sister and alcoholic father. Currie’s own descent into addiction becomes poignant within the biopic cliches.
The film’s achievement, though, is Stewart as Jett. All leather and business, Stewart prowls and observes. Her statements are direct, intentions clear, and focus precise, upsetting men who expect her to be submissive and demure like Bella Swan: upon seeing Fowley, Joan abandons a pouty boy toy to pitch for an all-girl rock band. She seems an actual runaway, too: her only life outside the band seems to be teen friends she lounges and parties with.
It’s clear Sigismondi is infatuated with Joan. Cherie has to grow, learn, struggle to pick herself back up, but her road is truncated and dumped in an end-film caption. Her survival matters, and is communicated to Joan in a touching phone call, but Jett pushes forward. She pulls herself out of a funk, picks up a guitar in her bedroom, and jams out “I Love Rock and Roll.” The joy of playing, her own edification, given more weight than the world which seeks to diminish her.