Currie, on the other hand, wilts in the face of adversity. To be fair, Currie does start out with a yen for music and fame that rivals Jett’s. But Dakota Fanning doesn’t have sufficient stature (physical or otherwise) to give life to Currie’s ambitions. Fanning lacks bravado and sass, and her voice doesn’t even approximate Cherie’s real-life brassy bellow.
In an early scene, Currie takes the stage at her high school talent show, her face made up like Bowie’s on the cover of Aladdin Sane. As she lip-synchs to "Lady Grinning Soul," the multiple layers of gender-bending are almost too much to process — especially for Currie’s classmates. Like Jett’s triumph at the clothing store, the scene provides a lesson in badassery: when they boo you, just flip them off. But Fanning doesn’t seem to enjoy the rebellion as much as Stewart does, so it quickly fades — and doesn’t really show its lightning-bolt, androgynous face again.
Fanning’s dull expressions and weak voice don’t even begin to clue you in to the mysteries of her character. In fact, for once I found myself wanting a little more tell to go along with show, which is as much the writer/director’s fault as the actress’s. We can see that Cherie has a complicated relationship with her twin sister, alcoholic father and gadabout mother (Tatum O’Neal, in an odd cameo), but we can’t really see what those relationships mean to her. And it’s obvious that Cherie can’t quite commit to the band, but without an emotional foundation, her reluctance just seems like juvenile fussing.
Combine all that inexplicable moping with the constant vibe of a Behind the Music downward spiral, and there’s that pretty little picture of passivity again. Empty characters simply aren’t compelling — they may be perfect vessels for a gimmicky all-girl act, but they don’t have half the heft required to keep a film afloat.
If you can get past the deficiencies of story and character — and the profligacy of trite music-video style — The Runaways has a few interesting things to offer. The menstrual imagery at the beginning is emblematic of the film’s feminism: here is an earthy, vital girl power that won’t be ignored. Even when Currie’s submissive nature subjects her to exploitation, these are girls who are trying to figure out who they are and struggling to stay true to what they discover.
I’m certain that the 13-year-old version of me would have been captivated by the feminist aspects of the film (especially when Kristen Stewart dons that red leather jumpsuit, but that’s another topic).
The male gaze does significantly undercut the movie’s feminist leanings — it often seems like the camera is taking the position of misogynist manager Kim Fowley — but that’s appropriate to the story of the Runaways. They fought oppression at every turn, and were marketed as jailbait rather than juvenile delinquents, so it’s only fair that we should squirm the way they had to.
The real fault in this girl band’s girl power (or the subjugation thereof) is that it is unexamined. It’s not enough to have something to look at; the viewer needs something to think about. Without context and analysis, sexism isn’t instructive: it’s just sad. As Kim Fowley hisses, "This isn’t about women’s liberation; it’s about women’s libido."
And the libido is the other tantalizing tidbit that makes the film worth watching. Kristen Stewart’s Joan Jett is always on the prowl, even while she hangs back. In a saucy scene with drummer Sandy (who takes a shower while Joan hovers just outside the curtain), Joan encourages Sandy’s adoration of Farrah Fawcett, all the while fighting off her own instinct to pounce. When she eventually does pounce — on Cherie Currie — she’s smooth and irresistible, the personification of rock ‘n’ roll.
She embodies an elemental, omnivorous force that defies labels and explanation. Even when Joan is macking on guys rather than girls, she retains a queer sensibility: she stays strong, reserves the right to say no, is quintessentially butch.