[Screen It]

(2010) (Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning) (R)

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Drama: A group of mid 1970s teens break the mold of an all-girl band by playing rebellious and sexualized rock 'n roll and must contend not only with their quickly growing success, but also their male manager who takes advantage of them.
It's 1975 Los Angeles and record producer Kim Fowley (MICHAEL SHANNON) is looking for the next band with potential. He thinks he's found it when he pairs teens Joan Jett (KRISTEN STEWART) on rhythm guitar and Cherie Currie (DAKOTA FANNING) as his lead singer, along with Sandy West (STELLA MAEVE) on drums, Lita Ford (SCOUT TAYLOR-COMPTON) as lead guitarist and Robin (ALIA SHAWKAT) on bass. Realizing their "jail bait" status could be a huge selling point that could match or exceed their punk rock music and that they're the first all-girl band to play punk rock, Kim forges ahead, sexualizing both them and the lyrics of their songs.

Cherie's twin sister Marie (RILEY KEOUGH) isn't particularly happy about that, but with their mom having moved overseas and their estranged father being an alcoholic, there's really no parental figure to put the nix on that. With roadie Scottie (JOHNY LEWIS) in tow, the band goes from playing small parties to progressively bigger gigs, culminating in a tour through Japan where The Runaways have become the next big thing.

From that point on, they must not only contend with Kim continuously pushing the envelope with them and their sexuality, but also what growing fame does to them in terms of egos, drug use and more.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Everyone knows the old saying "Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll" in relation to the latter music genre. And the image that probably comes to mind is that of sleazy male rockers smoking, boozing it up and doing any number of drugs with groupies who wouldn't otherwise give these sorts of guys the time of day -- let alone sleep with them -- if they weren't in a band.

Most people probably don't think of the genders being reversed, and not just because girls are made of sugar, spice and everything nice. Instead, it's that most famous girl groups -- as well as solo performers -- don't exude sleaziness, although behind closed door reports clearly indicate the ladies can and did get down and dirty just like the boys. However, one doesn't exactly imagine a teenage girl band could behave that way, especially decades ago when female gender norms were still more closely followed.

Yet, that's exactly what happened with an all-girl punk rock group from Los Angeles in the mid 1970s. Their story, or at least an abridged version of it -- with many lurid details still in place -- now arrives on the big screen as "The Runaways." Named after the real-life band that quickly rose to fame and disintegrated about as quickly (they lasted 4 years from inception to break-up), the film is most notable for addressing what may have been the first sexualization of underage female teen performers in the mainstream (long before Britney and others followed suit by mixing "innocence" and come-hither allure).

And if you're into the early punk rock scene, its music, and/or might be a fan of the original band, the pic contains some electric concert performance recreations. But for anyone looking for an in-depth biopic of the band and the girls that rode its rocket to fame before burning out amidst the fame, drugs, squabbles and a manipulative (and abusive) older male manager, the pic is likely going to be something of a disappointment.

Directed by Floria Sigismondi from her screenplay adaptation of former lead singer Cherie Currie's memoir, "Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway," the film's biggest problem, however, is that it follows the standard trajectory of the "putting a band together" genre. We see the individual members in their pre-group days when they long for rocking the world; the producer who gets them together; the rehearsals (especially of their eventual big hit that will play several times in the film), the concerts that grow from small events to bigger and better things; the substance abuse and sexual flings; and the eventual arguments, egos and such that ultimately spell disaster. As a result, nothing comes as a surprise in terms of plot, so it's up to the characters to engage the viewer.

Although there were five original members of the band (a number went through the bass position, eventually resulting in the movie creation of a fictional character in that spot), the pic focuses the vast majority on just two of them -- Joan Jett (played by Kristin Stewart finally finding a role that really suits her) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning continuing her progressive trend of growing up from the precocious little girl from seemingly not that long ago). While Jett is the more interesting of those two characters (mainly because she was the driving force behind the band and then went on to much bigger success in her own band), Currie gets more screen time.

Of course, it's her sexualization (at the age of 15) that gives the film its creepy edginess, and Fanning is certainly game for playing that up (repeatedly stoked by their older male manager -- effectively played by Michael Shannon -- who's part Barnum and part one-step away from being arrested as a pedophile). Sigismondi could have used this to condemn or at least do an in-depth exploration of said manipulation then and now (both of the artist as well as the audience members including impressionable young fans and older men getting their jollies from the "sexy innocence" juxtaposition).

To be fair, there is a bit of that (beyond the creepy yet fascinating rehearsal creation of "Cherry Bomb," there's the moment where Jett points out the focus should be on the music and not on Cherie's crotch). The filmmaker, however, isn't above using said moments as their own sensationalistic material in apparent hopes of making the film more noteworthy and controversial (and thus gaining more attention from the public and/or press).

As far as the rest of the band members, the Lita Ford character (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) doesn't really make an impression until late in the film (in the usual "I can't stand her attitude" response to the lead singer), while Sandy West (Stella Maeve) has some moments early on but quickly falls into the shadows and the aforementioned bass player (Alia Shawkat) doesn't get a last name, let alone any lines or material that registered with yours truly. Meanwhile, Riley Keough is present as the voice of reason character playing Currie's stay at home sister who isn't happy with her sibling's mindset and behavioral changes.

In the end, the three main characters create some interest, but not enough to overcome the fact that we've seen this sort of story so many times before. Granted, it pretty much played out that way in real life (with the usual artistic liberties taken here and there), but one can't help but wish the film could have done something novel with such rote material. While Stewart, Fanning and Shannon are good in their roles and the music is electric in that punk rock sort of vibe, "The Runaways" as a whole lacks the same sort of overall energy to help it earn any more than a 5 out of 10 rating.

Reviewed March 26, 2010 / Posted April 9, 2010

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