The Runaways could have been a great film. The story contains all the requisite elements. Five beautiful teenagers were exploited by a manipulative producer and the music industry. Despite their ill treatment, they defied feminine stereotypes, gained fame and created half-way decent music, all before their 16th birthday.
Italian director Floria Sigismondi could have explored the profound psychological trauma exacted on Cherie Currie, the band's abused lead singer. She might have examined in actual depth how the girls were mistreated by their handlers and insulted and disrespected by the 1970s media and music industries. For a more positive spin on things, Sigismondi could have delved into the personalities of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie. Ultimately, she settled on making a stylish, but sanitized rock biopic.
Sigismondi does focus some attention on sexism and exploitation. Savvy producer Kim Fowley put the band together, rightly suspecting that a pack of braless jailbait rockers would cause a stir. He initially approached Cherie Currie (played by 15-year-old Dakota Fanning) not after hearing her sing, but because he spotted her in a club and determined that her bombshell good looks had marketing potential. Fowley screams at the girls throughout the film, referring to them as his property or calling them horrible anatomical names. Sigismondi also pays close attention to the lyrics of the film's songs, illustrating a sad contradiction. The Runaways proved that girls could rock as hard as the guys, but in order to "make it" they had to wear corsets and skanky getups and sing naughty songs about their nascent sexual desires.
While Sigismondi seems to disparage the exploitation of young girls, she also treats viewers to a prolonged romantic encounter between Cherie Currie and Joan Jett (played by Kristen Stewart). The two lock lips when Jett leans over Currie in a roller rink. The girls are bathed in red light as Iggy Pop's "I Wanna Be Your Dog" plays in the background. The undeniable eroticism of the scene is a bit uncomfortable. Jett and Currie were both 15 years old at the time—the same age as Dakota Fanning at the time when the film was shot. There is something icky about a movie that denounces the commercial and sexual exploitation of young girls while filming its nubile protagonists engaged in what could be the hottest girl-on girl kiss in the history of the silver screen.
Despite its taste for titillation, the film steers clear of some of the uglier aspects of Currie's experience. It neglects to mention that, before joining The Runaways, she was raped by her sister's boyfriend, or that her drug problem actually began in the sixth grade. As the real Currie explains in an interview with Cinematical, "They didn't want me to lose my innocence so early in the film." The Runaways chronicles the excesses of tour life and the sexism and abuse the girls lived with daily, but the worst horrors of Cherie's young life are left ignored. The film alludes to her sexual relationship with an older crew member, deleting the ensuing pregnancy and abortion. Similarly, we are spared the depths of producer Fowley's depravity. Currie recounts how Fowley, as part of their "education," forced her and her bandmates to watch him have sex with a young woman.
The sanitization of Currie's experience is surprising given the racy nature of Sigismondi's past projects. She is known for her darkly gorgeous photography and music videos (including a Joel-Peter Witkin-esque video she made for Marilyn Manson's "The Beautiful People"). By ignoring the most brutal aspects of Currie's experience, the film gives the impression that her eventual breakdown was brought on by innate fragility, rather than years of abuse. She is depicted as a delicate girl unable to come to terms with her own sexuality and with the adult world she confronts too early.
Reviewers have correctly praised the actresses' performances; however, despite Dakota Fanning and Kristin Stewart's best efforts, the script has reduced both of their characters to feminine archetypes. Currie is the vulnerable blonde innocent who is unable to handle the challenges that the world throws at her, while Jett is the dark, fearless wild-child who plays with knives and instructs her band mates on masturbation. These caricatures are so divergent that there is no detectable chemistry between the two women and the friendship between Currie and Jett seems fabricated. This is an unfortunate disconnect, given that the only permanent thing that came out of the saga of The Runaways is the two women's enduring friendship.
We are used to rock biopics about adult men who self-destruct after years of self-indulgence. As a rock and roll movie, The Runaways hits all the right notes. But a story about abused, neglected and exploited teenage girls deserved to be more than just a genre film.