Occasionally, a movie comes along that rocks us into acknowledging our shared voyeurism.
Alfred Hitchcock often toyed slyly with that idea. One of his best films, “Rear Window,” is a study of a voyeur who peers into the windows of his New York City neighbors.
“The Runaways” is nowhere near Hitchcock’s league, but it makes us realize we spend lots of time watching stuff our great-grandparents would have deemed best left private.
The film about the ’70s all-girl rock band the Runaways stars Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) as a young Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as the band’s lead singer and focal point, Cherie Currie.
The five Runaways were only 15 when Los Angeles music impresario Kim Fowley (played with delicious sleaze by Michael Shannon) plucked them from a teen club and molded them – through cajoling, browbeating and any other mind game he could think of – into a solid, hard-hitting musical unit.
Up to this point, there had been female singers in rock and a few guitar-strumming folkies. But a real rock band in which women played all the instruments was a novelty.
To that curiosity the Machiavellian Fowley added an incendiary twist: jailbait.
Rock has always been a sexually-charged endeavor, and Fowley saw big bucks in the melding of angry, punky music with attractive underage women. It’s no coincidence that the Runaways’ most enduring song is called “Cherry Bomb.”
The film illustrates that not all the Runaways were happy with their sexualization. Jett and fellow guitarist Lita Ford wanted the music to speak for itself.
But the blond, petite Currie was naive enough to be molded by Fowley into a jailbait icon, posing for publicity photos in come-hither stances while wearing form-fitting lingerie.
Currie, whose memoir is the basis for the film, left the band after two years, by which time she was a dedicated drug addict. After decades of rehab and relapses, she is now clean and has a going career as a chain saw artist. (Is that perfect, or what?)
Director Floria Sigismondi shows the exploitation going on – she pretty much has to – and that puts those of us in the audience in a precarious position.
We are appalled as we watch the malleable Cherie being turned into a sexual temptress. An innocent young life is going down the tubes.
On the other hand, Fowley was onto something, for despite our best efforts to keep our minds out of the gutter, that’s precisely where they end up.
To make the squirm factor even higher, this is the first overtly sexual screen performance by Fanning, 16, a child actress we’ve watched grow up. It’s sort of like wandering into a topless joint and discovering your niece doing a pole dance.
Just about anything goes in today’s movies, and people can hardly be blamed for having thick skins. Which is why we should be thankful when a film can still make us feel uncomfortable.