As Sundance kicked into gear, I took the little downtime I had to think about Girls on Film, and what I would write to coincide with the festival. There were a myriad of options that flew through my brain, but one quote continued to repeat itself louder than any thought. The repeating and insistent drum was left by this tweet from The Hollywood Reporter:
Part of me was ready to rant about Hollywood's obsession with this premise, but since I haven't seen the film, that's an argument for another time. However, the tweet does leave something else to talk about. This film isn't just a case of a young actress striving to be taken seriously by playing a stripper, because Welcome to the Rileys is just one of Stewart's two racy Sundance features. The other is, of course, The Runaways -- the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll biopic where Stewart takes on the iconic Joan Jett.Kristen Stewart's compelling in Welcome to the Rileys in #Sundance, but the film is a massive cliché about whores and their male saviors.
In one, she's the quintessential, sexually plagued victim -- desperate, destroyed, and in need of a male savior. In the other, she's the sexually progressive rocker who paves her own course. Together, they offer two polar opposite views about sex and vulgarity, only one of which can be truly challenging.
Welcome to the Rileys was directed Jake Scott -- nephew of Tony, director of the beautiful music videos "Everybody Hurts" and "When You're Gone," and the feature film Plunkett & Macleane. But unlike his ultra-stylized look at guntoters, Rileys is about desperation, glimmers of hope, and life in the face of not-so-happy endings.
The film focuses on a couple still grieving the loss of their teen daughter years before. He, Doug Riley (James Gandolfini), finds comfort with a local waitress, while she, Lois Riley (Melissa Leo), becomes agoraphobic in her pristine house. But when Doug loses his mistress to cancer, he escapes to New Orleans on a business trip and becomes enamored with the idea of helping a young and struggling stripper (Stewart). She's a way for him to ease his pain, and in classic Hollywood style, right something wrong in his past. His absence then inspires his wife to leave her home and travel south to him.
As that THR tweet pointed out, it's yet another deep, struggling stripper story -- one used to pull at the heartstrings of viewers through chilling desperation. Yet, as Stewart sees it, "It's really not like a stripper movie at all. You never see me stripping." It's certainly not Showgirls, nor is it Striptease, but it's still the same cliché, the same desperation bred from the same tired story.
USA Today asserts the "vulgar" sexuality of Stewart's role, and wraps up their analysis by saying:
Naw. Well, the film might challenge notions that Stewart has no talent, but how can it challenge us as filmgoers? We've seen it all before -- many times, in many incarnations. It might be challenging to watch if you're plagued with triggers, or feel sensitive to the themes, but it's certainly not new territory. There is no revelation, no look into something entirely different. That comes in with feature number two.For an actress like Stewart, it would be easy to play it safe. Knock out a romantic comedy or a Nicholas Sparks weepie while the vampire cash keeps rolling in from Twilight sequels. Instead, Stewart is challenging herself, and moviegoers, too.
The Runaways tells the story of Joan Jett's band before she hated herself for loving you, and sung about her love of rock 'n' roll. The film details her (played by Stewart) meeting producer Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), getting him on-board her dreams for an all-girl rock band, finding a lead in Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), and making history for a brief and tumultuous run in the '70s.
As Kevin Kelly noted in his review of The Runaways, it's "a song showcase that puts in bold what The Runaways were all about, while giving a bit of short shrift to the other band members." That's not entirely surprising -- the film is, in part, based on Cherie Currie's 1989 biography, so it's no jump to see heavy emphasis on herself and the band's most famous member, Jett. (Although Lita Ford fans might also be hoping for a little more.) Nor is it surprising that The Hollywood Reporter says "the film does prefer music and bad behavior to insight, character or substance." Currie and Jett were instrumental in the film's production, and it's a bit rare to find good insight when the subject is part of the whole production.
But let's put that aside. Yes, a number of people say the film could have been better and that it's a little too "music video," but it finds something Welcome to the Rileys never could -- new territory. Or, at the very least, barely charted territory.
Karina Longworth says in her review: "The first image of Runaways is of a splatter of red menstrual blood on pavement, and from there on out, writer/director Floria Sigismondi concentrates on the power, beauty and tragedy of the teen girl libido unleashed." Unleashed. How many films show women as such without the smack of exploitation and pulp wonder?
To show one of the most simple and natural pieces of biology that almost everyone -- both in and out of cinema -- seem to shy away from, in the very first moment, immediately reconfigures The Runaways as something different than the norm. It gives the film a new rulebook -- one where sex is at the forefront, with young girls intermingling intoxication and loose sex and sexuality. Music, drugs, sex -- it's all intertwined as it was for the male hair bands before and after The Runaways rocked -- from Cherie "finding [her] c*ck," to Jett telling Stewart during filming: "P*ssy to the wood! F*ck the guitar!"
As Longworth writes, the story is "morally problematic," and that's "exactly the point. It's what happened, and still does happen with a new set of habits and modern tropes. Maybe you will think the film goes too far showing it, that the girls themselves took fame farther than they should, or something else entirely. There is the challenge of seeing these very young women as strong, sexually free, and rule-breaking, the challenge of seeing crude behavior usually left for the raunchy male folk, and audaciouness bred out of an undeniable need for release.
I've no doubt that the performances and story in Scott's Rileys are enough to tug at emotions and make for a reasonably solid experience, and that Stewart is showing range many don't think she has. But it can only stretch so far as the clichés it clings to. Whether we're talking about female characterizations in a post-apocalyptic world, or the myriad of prostitute and stripper movies that fill the cinematic seas, they are worthy themes bled dry and robbed of their challenging aspects by overexposure.
We can run off pure emotion and ignore how many times those same strings have been tugged, or we can ask for more films that truly challenge us. We can lavish attention to the mature roles that don't fall into the tired sex habits, and try to create a notion that there are many ways to show range and maturity in Hollywood.
Methinks the big challenge would be to ignore the world of prostitution and stripping entirely on the big screen. But that's a pipe dream.