It's hard with child actors. When we were kids ourselves, we envied them their fame and money and catchphrases—"Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?"—and what seemed like a charmed life signally free of teachers and math tests. Perhaps we felt a bit of Schadenfreude or something closely related when these objects of our childhood admiration and resentment began to founder as adult actors, as child actors normally do, and then there's always the odd bit of late-breaking news about a dead Corey or a troubled Boner gone missing in Vancouver to really put a rest to those former fancies.
The annals of childhood acting are full of sordid final acts: Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, killed in a fight over a hunting dog, Dana Plato of "Diff'rent Strokes" dabbling in soft-core before finally overdosing in an RV parked at her in-laws'. Then there's the redemption tale of Drew Barrymore and the astonishing transformation of Elizabeth Berkelee from "Saved by the Bell" wholesomeness to whatever the hell was going on in that Showgirls swimming pool. We seem to love it, in the non-fatal cases, when the transformation from child actor (granted, Berkelee was not exactly a child in "Saved by the Bell") to adult actor doesn't take place with the complacent smoothness with which the Cosby household resolves its growing pains.
The role of Runaways singer Cherie Currie seems a logical one for Dakota Fanning, perhaps the most famous and certainly one of the richest of the latest half-generation of child stars. It's something most of us probably wanted at Fanning's age (15 at the time of this production): getting to be someone else, and a rock star into the bargain, just when we felt all eyes were on us at a particularly vulnerable moment. This isn't the first of her grown-up movies, and it's not exactly a breakthrough movie in any sense, but it's an intriguing preview of the new Dakota Fanning emerging from the old, or rather the other way around.
Kind of wonderful, really. She hardly seems at pains to impress: Whatever it is, overdone her performance most certainly isn't. She doesn't give anything away, as an actress or character, especially in the second half of the movie when Currie is too zonked-out to communicate with much more than blinks. Fanning shows exhilarating restraint—just about as far from the "I-can-too-play-a-bad-girl" turn you'd expect.
Slightly more gung-ho is Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett, but then one could argue hers was the easy part, the role less freighted with personal baggage. Born in Philly, and incubated in the L.A. scene as a teenager, Jett has always presented herself as an uncomplicated, strictly business rocker without a public personal life and all its attendant juicy dramas. The Runaways makes some small and hardly surprising revelations about her sexuality (which, with Jett herself as executive producer, you can bet were thoroughly vetted beforehand) and a certain familiarity with inhalants, but really, who wants Joan Jett wholly demystified? The personal journey of the movie is mostly Fanning's anyway. If Stewart can inhabit Jett's leather outfit and fabulous shag haircut semi-convincingly and get that hunched-over mic stance and Jett's bounding energy exactly right—and she does—that's all the Joan Jett I need.
Besides principals Jett, Currie and drummer Sandy West, the other Runaways—most conspicuously Lita Ford—are almost devoid of characterization. This might be the result of a complicated legal situation that arose during the production, stemming from the protests of unconsulted former members Ford and bassist Jackie Fox. If I understand correctly, the producers acquired only the life-story rights of certain individuals, while others appear by name as characters but those characters are not intended to represent the actual persons. There is no character named Jackie Fox, and the movie's bassist seems wholly fictitious.
The real show-stealer, and I knew going in that it would have to be this way, is Michael Shannon as the band's Svengali Kim Fowley, a brilliant producer and a miserable dog of a human being. If anyone should be overacting in this movie it's Shannon, and his over-the-top Fowley gets most of the laughs and does a lot to maintain the movie's momentum. In its attentiveness to period detail—where in the world can you still find those crazy '70s living room decorations?—the production design sometimes crowds the action right out of the picture. The Runaways doesn't suffer from a single weak performance, but given the crackling energy of its subject matter it doesn't itself seem as electric as it should.
Oh, those feuding Runaways, forever leaving each other out of their movies. In 2003's Edgeplay: a film about the Runaways, directed by the group's last bassist Vicky Blue (now Victory Tischler-Blue), it was Joan Jett who was conspicuously absent. In Tischler-Blue's movie, now-deceased drummer Sandy West emerged as the group's tragic figure: the one Runaway who never got over the eventual breakup, still waiting for a reunion that never happened. It's some small consolation that she appears happy here, or the actor playing her does, always and forever a queen of noise.
The Runaways concludes its run at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, May 6.