By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 20, 2010 at 06:39 PM EDT

Image Credit: Everett CollectionA number of readers have ripped me for writing an entire review of The Runaways in which I somehow failed to include a single word about Dakota Fanning’s performance. You’re right, point taken, I should have. All right, here goes: She was perfectly okay. Actually, when I realized that I’d written the review that way, I just figured that I’d let my lack of comment on Fanning’s performance stand as an implicit statement that there wasn’t all that much to say about it. She’s quite the critics’ darling these days — always has been, really — but to me, Dakota Fanning, as she’s grown up, has turned into a slightly odd actress, luminous and emotionally delicate but also passive and a bit spaced. She’s gifted, but as a presence she’s not all there.

In The Runaways, she plays Cherie Currie as a put-upon nice girl who worships David Bowie (and gets pelted with wads of paper at school for it!), then learns how to snarl and cock her body on stage like a real punk she-devil. Yet somehow, through all the drugs and girl fights and bleary, sleepless tour dates and leering of the boys in the audience and abuse piled upon her by the group’s domineering packager-producer-manager-Svengali-tormenter, Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), Cherie manages to retain the wispy essence of her wayward-ingenue innocence. Fanning has one good scene near the end where Cherie is blasted on drugs and tries, without any luck, to purchase a bottle of liquor; her slovenly, impotent fury at the sales people is startling. But up until then, Fanning’s competent, rather wan acting fits all too neatly into the film’s pious, slightly sanitized vision of Cherie Currie as a sweetly alienated, emotionally neglected Los Angeles girl who got put through a pop-culture meat grinder.

Yes, that’s kind of what happened, but if we really want to be progressive (and truthful) about it, let’s also give the members of the Runaways credit for being the young women they chose to be, even if they were just babe-in-the-urban-woods teenagers. From all the sources I’ve encountered (including the memoir on which the movie is based), the real Cherie Currie was, and still is, a pistol, a girl who got herself into heaps of trouble because she eagerly sought it out. Please understand, I’m not “blaming the victim.” I’m just trying to talk about what girls like Cherie really went through back in the late ’70s, when having a wild time without taking responsibility for it was the unholy hedonistic essence of the sex, drugs, and rock & roll lifestyle.

In The Runaways, Fowley teaches Cherie how to sing “Cherry Bomb,” and within minutes she’s performing it with a teasing sneer, but the whole point is that it’s almost like a mime act; she’s going through the motions of bad-girl defiance. The real Cherie Curry really was a cherry bomb. You can see that in any of the actual footage of the band (I recommend the pretty good, though hardly definitive, 2004 documentary Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways), but you can also see it if you go back and watch her performance in Foxes, the 1980 Hollywood drama about four high-school girls in Los Angeles that gave Currie what turned out to be her first and last shot at mainstream stardom.

I remember that when I first I saw Foxes, the debut feature of director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Flashdance), I thought that in its glossy and rather melodramatic way it seemed to channel the declarative first blast of a new generation. When I saw it again the other night, that feeling was still there. It’s really one of the very first, very early Gen-X movies (the true first one, to me, is 1978’s terrific Over the Edge), and I was struck all over again by the freshness of what it captured: these four prematurely jaded adolescent girls, led by Jodie Foster as the sensible one, living like baby adults, cut off from their parents and the past, bonded only by attitude, consumerism, and the pop-culture decadence they share. (At times, it’s like Sex and the City: The Teenage Years.) It’s no accident that Foxes is set in Los Angeles. The movie is about what were, at the time, “Los Angeles values” — the obsession with fashion, money, buffed bodies, and a certain kind of clued-in clique-ish status — and how they were starting to become the new American values.

Currie plays Annie, the fast-lane hellion of the lot, and an obvious gloss on her own persona. (That cherry tattoo on her shoulder fits right in, as does her evil-angel porn-star hair.) In her first scene, she’s asleep after a night of partying; her friends have to wake her out of a heavy drug stupor by throwing a glass of water in her face. And for Annie (whose father, a cop, wants to send her to a mental institution), it’s all downhill from there. But what a vibrant, instinctive, and knowing performance Cherie Currie gives! Cherie, seen up close, is an extraordinarily pretty girl, with glittering Bambi-on-a-bender eyes and a lewd smile that lines her face with dimples, but she also has a ghostly pallor. She makes Annie a troubled pleasure-seeker who’s 15 going on 42. She’s not without brains, but she can’t see past the next moment, the next guy on a motorcycle.

It would be silly to say that what we’re seeing in Foxes is the “real” Cherie Currie; the movie is a work of fiction. But the hook of her performance is that it plays, knowingly, off her image and captures a version of what her life, under different circumstances, might possibly have become. She projects an intoxicating, slightly sordid hunger that lights up the screen, and it’s that avidness, I think, that expresses something of Currie herself.

Light of Day, a 1987 blue-collar rock & roll fable written and directed by Paul Schrader, is now a hard movie to find (I had to dig up and watch a copy on VHS, which really made it feel like something from the ’80s). But it’s a better film than I remember. At the time, when I wrote about it for the Boston Phoenix, I sort of mocked the pairing of Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett (together again!), as a factory-worker brother and ne’er-do-well sister who play in the same go-nowhere Cleveland bar band, performing boozy sets for a sliver of the door take. But Fox, cast dramatically against type, is actually pretty good (at least, once you get past the pufffy mane of ’80s dude hair that makes his frame look even tinier), and Jett, in the role of a woefully dysfunctional single mom who lives for rock & roll because she feels like she’s got nothing else, does something tricky and touching. She turns this character, and the whole movie, really, into a pitiless goodbye to — forgive the Casey Kasem-ism — “the rock era.”

In Light of Day, Joan Jett looks astoundingly beautiful and serene, with a gritty, Jane-six-pack side that comes out mostly in her voice, with its hint of gravel. Like most rock stars, she’s not really a very expressive actor. There are a lot of scenes in which she holds back and doesn’t fully show you what’s going on inside. Yet Jett, like Currie in Foxes, is playing a kind of cautionary version of what she might have become, and she does so, if not with great technique, then with bone-deep conviction. The character, who’s a flake and, at times, an inept petty criminal, is still reeling in protest against the strictures of her conservative religious mom (Gena Rowlands, who’s quite sympathetic), and Jett shows you what rock & roll delinquency looks like when it has gone past its expiration date. Light of Day is really a family drama in which a leather-jacketed black sheep learns that her true place is back with the flock. That’s not a rock & roll message, but it’s one that Joan Jett makes you believe because, by then, perhaps, she understood it herself.

So who out there has seen Foxes or Light of Day? Or, for that matter, The Runaways? How do you think the first two hold up? And do you believe that either Cherie Currie or Joan Jett could, or should, have been movie stars?

The Runaways

  • Movie
  • R
  • 105 minutes
  • Floria Sigismondi