I had been wanting to see the movie The Runaways and it so happened that I caught it with my younger kid, Will, who is an intrepid movie-goer, the very next day after watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the two films made an interesting pairing.
Besides feeling the Mexicali earthquake during the film (which caused us to seek temporary refuge in the parking lot), the story of Joan Jett’s first band is set in the same Valley of Fast Times, the same Valley where I now live. The film takes place in 1975 and the characters are fifteen; the fact that I was fifteen in 1975 gave the film a sort of resonant dream-like quality, especially watching next to my thirteen-year old and also thinking about my fifteen-year-old son.
Bearing relationship to all rock & roll movies (be it Sid and Nancy or The Buddy Holly Story), The Runaways is both exhilarating and sad—like rebellion, growing up and making art all must inevitably be. The heroines of the film, lost and vulnerable angels turned would-be bad girls reminded me all too well of my punk rock friends from back in the day, but also of myself in my own lost way.
The psychological dynamics of neglectful, impaired, narcissistic and/or substance-abusing parents that leave kids to fend for themselves also reminded me of the group home kids I used to work with. The evocation of a certain time and place in LA also made me think of Bowery and East Village days of a certain time in New York, and of Susan Seidelman’s first film, Smithereens, (and of Susan Seidelman, living just down the block on Thompson Street in those days). It’s strange (and relieving) to revisit the mindset of rebellious and anarchistic youth while sitting next to your own kid who is much better adjusted than you were at his age.
While I would warn off parents taking kids younger than fifteen or sixteen to this movie (unless you’re like me in being a “bad” parent who thinks mature thirteen-year-olds won’t go getting bad ideas from films in which tragic figures have sex too young and do drugs in the context of sad lostness), it is actually an interesting feminist artwork—and I’d love to hear what any mother-daughter filmgoers think of this film. The director, Floria Sigismondi, a daughter of Italian opera singers (Floria is the star of Tosca), cut her teeth in music videos but also works in varied media as an artist. She shows a sophisticated European approach to a biographical story that she nevertheless uses to take us into much wider issues about the place of women in rock & roll and in the world—about sacrifices made in the past to open doors for women artists and women in general.
As a former filmmaker and student of cinema I tend to notice when I’m in the hands of an artist and not just a studio hired gun riding atop a comic book. Sigismondi appears to reference Truffaut’s 400 Blows when late in the film the wrecked young rocker presses her hand in trapped desperation against the glass of a phone booth, evoking the young kid trapped up against a fence that ends Truffaut’s film.
In another artsy but successful scene, a symbolic meditation on the group and the individual, we see fans pressing against the opaque glass of a Japanese hotel room until it shatters and the fans stream in. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sigismondi wasn’t thinking about one of the opening images in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona when she directed this, but in any event The Runaways delves into feminine identity, fame and alienation and marks the emergence of a directorial talent to watch.
Bad pun as it may be, The Runaways is a period film on two counts—both in the time-period, but also in that it starts with the lead character’s first menstruation (and is essentially about coming of age in a nightmare of poor supervision and exploitation). The opening image of menstrual blood falling to the dry dusty ground of the Valley says several things, at least to me: that this is going to be an in-your-face story about feminine rock & roll coming of age, about how rock & roll is a blood sport, about how the end of innocence is the beginning of rock & roll and about how themes of sacrifice will play out individually and culturally.
Like Greenberg, The Runaways is a movie that is both compelling but hard to watch, a movie that gives them something to talk about, and think about, which is more than I can say for most modern cinema. As we walked out after the film ended, Will turned to me and said, “The styles change, the addictions remain the same.”
So, let’s dedicate today to helping our collective boys and girls come of age well-supervised and buffered, as well as we can do it, from our own failings (mostly by owning those universal limitations we all carry, and by supporting each other as parents to hang in and be our best Selves).