"Promote the music, not your crotch!"

A dollop of menstrual blood falls onto the sidewalk just outside the Pup 'n' Fries. It's 1975. Life's about to change for some teenage girls and the music industry will follow, though at a slow pace.

The 1970s were like this, filled to bursting with bad lighting, trashy music, and terrible clothing. Darkness envelopes Sunset Strip. The gang hang out behind the as-yet-unrestored Hollywood sign. Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) share alcohol from a squirt gun. Girls, guitars, garbage cans, and shadows flash before the audience like seedy out-takes from Guy Peellaert and Nic Cohn's Rock Dreams. Director Floria Sigismondi shoots more than one scene through chain link fences. She loves the extreme low angle; The Runaways features many excellent shots of ceilings. The movie actually works best in its early stages, gradually connected snapshots of lost little girls in a lost era.

Promoter and producer Kim Fowley gathers the various Runaways, each with rock star dreams, and shapes them into his sleazy jailbait fantasy. Much of the film's conflict grows from differing visions of what the Runaways should be.

Michael Shannon plays Fowley as a man who knows how to market attitude and get headlines, but otherwise lacks redeeming qualities. He's sleazy, exploitative, self-obsessed, and slightly deranged. I don't know how much of this is reality; in a recent interview, Fowley denied much of it while sounding very like the character we see onscreen. I wanted to deck him and then wash my hand. At the same time, the mixed messages the girls receive about empowerment, sex, and hedonism reflect the ones girls were receiving and that girls receive in our broader culture. Looking at the current crop of young female pop stars, one sees some things remain less changed than we might like.

Stewart gets Jett's mannerisms and attitude down pat. She's by far the most interesting member of the group and the best thing on the screen. I never cared that much for Jett's solo career, but I can appreciate what we see here. She's an earnest rebel, appropriating and transforming a male definition of cool, James Dean with curves and a layered shag.

Fanning as Currie proves less riveting, but she's strong enough to hold her substantial screen time. Her story takes a more familiar form, rock star clichés, as her ego and appetite for self-destruction grow.

If you know this film only peripherally, you likely know that (1) it's about a 70s band that helped blaze a trail for female rockers but which went seriously unappreciated in its day and (2) Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart's characters have sex. Actually, the director shoots that scene in hazy drug-o-vision, allowing more to be suggested between her underage actors than the film actually shows, but also blunting whatever meaning the physical aspect of their relationship might have. Far more successful is the scene where Jett teaches Sandy West (Stella Maeve) to masturbate. It's shot comparatively tamely and played for raunchy laughs.

Riley Keough does admirably as Cherie's sister, left behind with a dead end job and an alcoholic father as her sister becomes a million-seller in Japan and a novelty act across the states. The film also features an interesting bit of stunt casting; former 70s child star Tatum O'Neal plays Currie's mom. The other actors put in fair to good performance, but they haven't been given much to do. The remaining Runaways spend too much time in the background. Jackie Fox (now a lawyer, and unwilling to participate in the movie) is entirely absent, replaced with a made-up bass player who receives little personality or screen time. The invented girl also stands in for the band's many replacement bassists. The film also gives short shrift to Lita Ford and Sandy West. They have some presence in the film, but both lack a "where is she now?" credit, despite both having solo careers (Ford's is better-remembered; West's was cut short by cancer).

The film shows us a hurried version of the Runaways from their start to Currie's departure. We then fast-forward to a point several years later. As the final credits note, the band continued for a couple more years without Currie, and they released albums. Currie actually had a passable film career before being laid low by drugs. These elements had no place in the film, which has been shaped into a failed, not-always-Platonic love story between Cherie Currie and Joan Jett. Near the end we hear the latter's remake of "Crimson and Clover" playing on the radio as Cherie listens and smiles.

Individual scenes have conviction, but they're very short, and this fact hampers the character development the story demands. Much has been made of the actors singing and playing their own instruments; I'd rather they'd lip-synched and been given more opportunity to act. Like much pop music I found The Runaways engaging, eyeball-kicking and ear-pleasing, but ultimately, lacking a little in lasting effect.

Director: Floria Sigismondi
Writer: Floria Sigismondi and Cherie Currie

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie
Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley
Stella Maeve as Sandy West
Scout Taylor-Compton as Lita Ford
Alia Shawkat as Jackie Fox Robin
Riley Keough as Marie Currie
Johnny Lewis as Scottie
Tatum O'Neal as Cherie's Mom
Brett Cullen as Cherie's Dad
Keir O'Donnell as Rodney Bingenheimer

The film carries a 14A Rating in Canada. I derived some amusement from the presence of surprised young Twihards who'd come with their parents to catch Kristen Stewart's cool movie.