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Grade B: 'Runaways' hits the right notes

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

A somewhat-softened version of an immensely complicated, often brutal story, "The Runaways" raises more questions than it answers, questions about feminism, commodification and sexual agency, about the intersection of power and money and underage women, about the paradox of being both a role model and being a victim.

Oddly, this works, somewhat, because the Runaways themselves brought up more questions than they answered. Theirs was an unlikely existence, a rock band made up of five women barely old enough to drive and managed by an abusive male producer twice their age at a time when girls playing guitar were encouraged to stick with acoustic versions of "On Top of Old Smokey."

The year is 1975, and Los Angeles seems teeming with glam-obsessed boys and girls hanging out at Rodney's English Disco, listening to Bowie, experimenting with bisexuality (or at least looking the part) and generally looking for cheap thrills.

Into Rodney's walks young Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart, her sharpest role to date). The kind of gal who saves her pennies for a leather jacket, Jett tries to sell creepy record producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon, about a third as sketchy as the real Fowley's reputation) on the idea of an all-girl band.

Fowley knows a chance for sexual (and financial) exploitation when he sees it and quickly recruits 15-year old Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning, excellent) to sing. ("Jail (expletive) bait!" he yells. "Jack (expletive) pot!")

Soon, the gals — including lead guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton, doing a good job with an underwritten part), drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve, ditto) and composite bassist named Robin (Alia Shawkat, wasted entirely) — are practicing in a sweltering trailer while Fowley alternately berates them and lectures them, hammering home that they are about more sex than rock, that they are selling themselves more than the music.

Writer and first-time feature director Floria Sigismondi cut her teeth on fashion photography and music videos, and she deserves plenty of credit for making everyone and everything look properly skeezy (she shot it on Super-16mm film, a very good call).

But, again, rock bands are complicated, filled with competing desires, egos and motives. Movies have never been all that great at displaying those complexities. Based on Currie's memoir "Neon Angel," "The Runaways" is essentially the Cherie and Joan story, with the rest given short shrift. (For those wanting more, check out the riveting documentary "Edgeplay," which hits moments of almost Cassavetes-esque intensity.)

Stewart's Jett is the anti-Bella — while confusion is her "Twilight" character's default setting, here she knows exactly what she wants from the band. She sees through Fowley but remains devoted to the rock above all else. Her relationship with Currie is more complicated — do they want each other, want to be each other or what?

You never know quite what Fanning's Currie is thinking — she's the embodiment of the old Sex Pistols lyric "Don't know what I want/ but I know how to get it." She sees her on-stage fishnets and corset as empowering (maybe?), but the audience just likes seeing an underage gal dressed as a stripper. She takes some cheesecake photos and seems baffled when they enrage the rest of the band. Or does she know exactly what she was doing?

Not entirely. Currie's life and career spiraled downward, while Jett learned every possible lesson and became a star. "The Runaways" scratches the surface of the reasons why, but those scratches cut deep.

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926

Rating: R for sexuality, language, drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Dobie, Tinseltown South.