From a very pedestrian viewpoint, The Runaways were a scruffy chick rock L.A. version of that original pre-fab/anti-fab combo, the Sex Pistols, aimed at a fucked up demographic by a nutcase impresario, Kim Fowley. But then there's the 'enlightened' viewpoint which was like whoa, these chicks rawk! Kind of confused about whether its a tired meditation on dues, fame and girly girls, ala LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, or drugs and excess, like ROCK STAR, the RUNAWAYS has a little of both: lots of dues-paying, the girls deflecting tossed beer cans with their guitar necks, dealing with small hotel rooms, blossoming lesbianism, and Cherie Curie's terrible music taste. Little things that add up to an uneasy feeling, like CROSSROADS welded on THE DOORS and ringing the loosey-goosey 70s kids are all wrong bell of OVER THE EDGE (1979), which is still the greatest kids amok film after all these years!
RUNAWAYS as it stands misses some grittier marks in order to coddle blonde "Cherry Bomb" lead singer Curie's (above) bratty myopia, a bad decision considering Dakota Fanning's halfhearted performance. Or is it just that Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett rocks harder and mopes so much grittier than Fanning that the movie grows lopsided? See that picture above, of the real Cherie? She may be acting as coy as Carmen Sternwood but those eyes are feral and dangerous, like a wild tigress we have known, like Carmen Sternwood in fact. Now look at poor Dakota below, blank as the freshly fallen snow.
I say this as someone who loves Dakota, but she seems unable to rock. She's no Carmen Sternwood, she's not even the rather alarmingly focused creature belting out an a capella "Hound Dog" in the 2007 movie of that name (my review here). There are 16 year-olds out there who are going on 23 and there are 16 year-olds out there going on 11. Dakota was an 11 year-old going on 30 but now 11 seems to have caught up with her, while the real Cherie was clearly still 'advancing' to an alarming degree. Maybe the studio hoped Fanning would mature during the filming, for certain she's due to pop into womanhood any day... if she lets it happen. There are ways that girls can prevent it, and I shudder to think that Dakota's following in so many young girls' DSM IV-certified child actor anorexic stunted growth footsteps. In THE RUNAWAYS she's still just a deer in the headlights, not yet a she-wolf eating said deer. Fanning lets Kristen Stewart do all the eating while she lies in the corner, sucks her thumb, and acts coy. Is she even having fun? Does she still like to pull the wings off flies? Are you getting all these super-droll BIG SLEEP references?
Fanning's good in these moments of stoned triumph and good much later as a zonked junky in the grocery store, using her cart for support as she glides through the aisles. Trying to buy two large onions and a liter of vodka from a skeptical cashier who looks distrustfully down at her blank eyes, bruised arms and shitty ID. We like that she steals her dying aunt's medication, and that she plays mind games with her copycat sister, but it's one thing to be believably fucked-up, another to turn that fucked-uppedness into rock and roll gold. Brando was a believable working class slob in STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, for example, but that's not why the role made him an icon. Fanning needs that break-out role that will make us begin to think of her as not a girl, even if not yet a woman. She's still eerily mature like she was in I AM SAM, but now she's clinging to a blank DARIA-style po-faced apathy, trying to stare down adulthood in the mirror, and who can blame her, considering the horrors she's seen herself go through on film? Speed, anorexia and self-loathing keeps a girl 'forever young' until one day she just turns to dust or goes to rehab, or is saved by rock and roll. Yeah baby, rock and roll. But Dakota, if rock is to save your life you have to at least give a shit about it. You have to thank it, bathe in it, love it unconditionally. Otherwise you're just a poseur looking for a validation hand-out.
In the end, Kristen Stewart pulls off being a rock and roll survivor just like the real Joan Jett, and Keith Richards, because she taps into that feeling of how passion and genuine interest in something other than yourself can save your life, even if it makes you a little grubby in the process. Fanning / Curie never finds that, never deigns to look outside the mirror for her raison d'etre. But in Joan, Kristen, and Keith's cases, it's a love of one's craft. No doubt rock and roll is what keeps Keith alive; he keeps death at a respectful bay with his guitar, and by the end, once Joan's suffered and lost her mind and got it back through writing "I Love Rock and Roll," she has earned the right to be a rock goddess the way she hadn't in the Runaways; she suffers and survives through rock in a way Dakota's Cherie never accepts, admits, or apparently wants.
It's the Keith Richard life preserver, keeping you above the sharks that saves one even as the other metaphysically drowns. It's like selling your soul to the devil; you may smell bad and look hungover as hell, but the devil always keeps your lovelamp lit because you've found something to hold onto, something with six strings that can't just leave you or turn against you, a creative outlet you can practice and play on forever and never master to your satisfaction. Art is like a crack in a prison wall and you know that the more you scrape at that hole, the wider your glimpse of daylight til one day you can just escape. Escape isn't even important as long as you are comforted by the OCD notion you never have to stop scraping, so the scraping becomes the love. It's a devil's bargain. Joan and Kristen signed the Satanic contract but Cherie and Dakota just fold it up, asking the devil if they can hold onto it and "think about it"... until indecision becomes their whole persona, and that's death if you're in a rock band. You may as well bring your mother along, like Cameron Crowe does in ALMOST FAMOUS.
To go meta on the issue here: as a child actress coming into fruition, Dakota's heading into some treacherous waters... she needs a Keith Richards life preserver. She's a lost little girl, and making personal lostness part of the role isn't the same as playing a lost little girl in such a way as to make us swoon from your lostness, to cry and pine and bemoan our own lostness at the same time. It's not just Cherie throwing a tantrum of indecision, it's Dakota throwing a tantrum by draining Cherie's tantrum of cinematic resonance. It's kind of like when your trying to do improv with someone who wont obey the first rule of improv (always say yes) and so every attempt to start a scene is shot down by them without even thinking ("I'm a devil!" - "No you're not")- In that way Fanning's become like another child star whose precocious genius has seemed to fade, Christina Ricci (as Nathan R. writes about on Film Experience). If moviedom was their parents, Christina and Dakota would be going through a phase, a kind of passive aggressive tantrum, like Richard Burton in EXORCIST 2 (below). Sometimes too, as with Burton, if you have a rep of being a great actor, directors are skittish about telling you how bad your sucking. And you go on auto-pilot, not realizing future generations will be laughing at you for aeons to come.
Since we never see the Curie spark in Fanning we never really see what it was she lost, or if she even lost it. We can only discern that that some people were born to rock, and others to fold napkins at a gift shop and occasionally dress like Stevie Nicks. I'm not knocking napkin folding or Stevie Nicks. Most of us--myself included--leave the rock world for folding napkins sooner or later. Maybe napkins are all we can handle once the devil collects his first chunk of his due.
Only a few go the distance like Joan and Keith, for whom no drug will ever supplant their rooted allegiance to rock, which is why they're free to do as much of them as they want. The rest of us may have rocked and had a good time, but love of rock never really supplanted our love of drugs or our longing for a sense of rooted creature comfort. We'd rather stay home and listen to music and get high than go out on the road and deal with afternoon sound checks in bars still reeking of smoke, booze, sweat and vomit from the night before. We'd rather not have to worry about staying more or less sober until after the first set. And we hope Dakota doesn't turn out like us, but on the other hand, you can't hang in the doorway forever. As for the real Cherie Curie, she finally found her own Keith Richards life preserver...with chainsaw sculpture! Big sister, burn on!