Cherry Bombed: Fanning and Stewart (front) go far on drugs and girl power.
Cherry Bombed: Fanning and Stewart (front) go far on drugs and girl power.

Twihards who sneak into The Runaways may scrunch their noses at Kristen Stewart’s latest role. Why does Bella have such a gross haircut? And her clothes are, like, totally stupid and make her look like a boy. OMG, now she’s kissing girls! Eww. There probably aren’t a whole lot of Twilight fans ready to side with Team Lesbian.

Ticket buyers who want to see whether Stewart can channel Joan Jett, however, will be pleased. Finally—finally!—the young actress has taken a decided step away from the franchise that made her both a star and a punch line. It’s a step that will remind audiences of the talent Stewart showed before Stephenie Meyer crashed her universe.

In writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s debut, Stewart’s teenage Jett—née Joan Larkin—is hunched, fierce, and knows that, above all else, she wants to spend her life rockin’ out with an electric guitar. Sigismondi, primarily a music-video director, doesn’t exactly introduce the girl subtly. We first see Joan shopping for clothes (as a disapproving clerk notes) in the men’s section. Soon thereafter, she’s snorting coke and lip-locking with a female friend. Then there’s the ultimate hit-you-over-the-head scene, although it’s kinda funny: Joan shows up for a guitar lesson with her black pick, ready to plug in. The teacher offers her a pink pick, snubs her request for an amp, and starts strumming “On Top of Old Smokey,” insisting that “girls don’t play electric guitars.” She finds an amp anyway and blows the doors out for a few seconds before leaving—with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” playing as she walks away. Gee, think Joan’s vagina was occasionally a pain in the ass?

But this actually isn’t Stewart’s film to steal—it’s Dakota Fanning’s. Though she’s proved the most successful (and still active) member of the Runaways, Jett isn’t the focus of this script, which was based on an autobiography by the group’s lead singer, Cherie Currie. Fanning is astonishing in her transformation: This is no child actor playing dress-up, but a moody, David Bowie-obsessed teen who is ready to tell the world to fuck itself, just as she flips off fellow students after her Ziggy Stardust–outfitted lip synch at a talent show. Cherie has never sung or played so much as a triangle when she’s invited to audition for the band. Her talents? One, “a look on [her] face that says, ‘I could kick the ass of a truck driver.’” And two, “Jail-fuckin’-bait.”

Both qualities have record producer/Runaways manager Kim Fowley (a cartoonish Michael Shannon) euphoric, believing he’s found the essential component to lift the first all-girl rock band beyond novelty act: “You bitches are going to be bigger than the Beatles!” Though Fowley did tout the girls’ musical originality, he was really, and a little creepily, all about their sexuality. Which makes Joan’s anger over a soft-core photo spread Cherie agrees to after the Runaways hit it big—at least in Japan—puzzling. “Publicize the music, not the crotch!” she growls to Cherie, who has become her close friend and, at least for one gauzy, trippily photographed night, her lover.

By this time, drugs were becoming more important to Cherie than sex or rock ’n’ roll, the penultimate requirement to shoehorn the film into the rise/fall/some-rise-again formula of your typical biopic. There’s some heartstring-tugging in glimpses of the broken home Cherie left behind. (You can also tell Cherie is sensitive because she likes Don McLean’s “Vincent.”)

But even if The Runaways’ paint-by-numbers story is underwhelming, the performances and the rawk still make the film a blast. Shannon’s “Frankenstein-looking” Fowley may be inaccurately portrayed as more funny than predatory, but Stewart and Fanning not only look their parts, they sing them as well—and do a helluva job. Sigismondi re-creates a performance of “Cherry Bomb” that the band played in Japan, with Cherie in a corset and stockings and high as a kite; look up the real clip on YouTube and marvel at how flawlessly and electrically Fanning captures Currie’s stage presence. The soundtrack is a mix of, among others, Stewart and Fanning, the Runaways, Suzi Quatro, and the Blackhearts, all guitar-heavy punk bliss. In the film, Fowley says after the group’s breakup: “The Runaways were a conceptual rock project that failed.” Considering the movie makes you want to start a band the moment you leave the theater, the girls’ alleged failure is relative.