Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Dante (1994)

12. Runaway Daughters

Not that long ago, I was talking about the “Rebel Highway” series of TV movies. For those that need a refresher, in the mid-nineties, the son of Sam Z. Arkoff had an idea. He would give the titles of a bunch of his dad's old A.I.P. movies to a group of filmmakers, composed of old cult favorites and up-and-comers. They could make any movie they wanted with these titles and the finished products were broadcast on Showtime on a weekly basis. Joe Dante being selected as one of the directors to participate in “Rebel Highway” was somewhat ironic. Dante – along with fellow “Rebel Highway” directors, Alan Arkush and Jonathan Kaplan – had gotten his start at Roger Corman's New World Picture, the direct descendant of sorts of A.I.P.  Considering his obvious love of A.I.P and fifties pop culture, Dante seemed like an obvious pick to helm this kind of project.

Like all of the “Rebel Highways” movies, Dante's “Runaway Daughters” is nothing but the loosest remake of the 1956 film it takes its name from. The primary connection is that both movies follow a trio of teenage girls who runaway from home. Good girl Laura, bad girl Angie, and something-in-between Mary are the best of friends. Each has their struggles with parents and boyfriends. Mary's boyfriend, Bob, pressures her into going further than ever before. Afterwards, she fears she's become pregnant. When Bob hears this, he runs off to join the Army. Incensed, Angie talks Mary and Laura to go on a road trip to track Bob down. In order to get away with it, they send fake ransom notes to their parents, making it appear they have been kidnapped.

“Runaway Daughters” is the last of three films Charlie Haas would write for Joe Dante. This trio of films don't exactly form a thematic trilogy of sorts, as “Gremlins 2” doesn't connect much with the other two. However, one can't help but see “Matinee” and “Runaway Daughters” as complimenting movies. While “Runaway Daughters” is set a few years before “Matinee” – 1956 versus 1962 – both have that nostalgic approach to them. Both are awash in the signifiers of the baby boomer's childhood. Here, we see the greaser boyfriend again, this time played by an absolutely baby-faced Paul Rudd. We see the drive-in movie theater, which is always showing old monster movie or vintage teen flicks. (Including, paradoxically, the movie this film is a remake of.) There are big cars, bee hives, poodle skirts, and golden oldies on the radios.

Yet, in some ways, “Runaway Daughters” seems less reflective on these nostalgic tendencies than Dante's previous films. We do not see the full-blown destruction of the Capra-esque small town, as seen in “Gremlins.” We don't even really get the nudging mockery of 1950s foibles that we got in “Matinee.” There's a little bit of that. While on their road trip, Mary and Angie are cornered by a pair of small town cops, who are fully determined to use their power as cops to assault these teenage girls. Laura saves the day by shotgunning the cops' car. Aside from that, “Runaway Daughters” plays it pretty straight. This is a movie about how the fifties were pretty great.

Or, at least, the fifties that exists in our collective pop culture unconscious. The first “Rebel Highway” entry was Robert Rodriguez' “Road Racers,” which exaggerated fifties teensploitation stereotypes to their self-destructive extreme. While “Runaway Daughters” is a much, much gentler film, Dante is similarly interestingly in stretching these ideas to their furthest point. So, at times, this film almost plays like a parody of the movies it's celebrating. The greaser boyfriend is such a mysterious bad-ass, he's only capable of barking about his independence to his dad. That Dante-esque impish sense of humor peers through, in moments when a clueless cop writes down a suggestion from a parent. Or Dick Miller as a private detective describes all the bad shit teenagers can get up too.

These comedy elements sometimes feel at odds with the rest of the movie. For long stretches of its run time, “Runaway Daughters” is a fairly sincere movie. The characters and their plight are taken seriously. So the more outwardly humorous moments, like Laura running away from an argument with her mom into a total stranger's home, feel slightly out of place. This is not the only odd tonal shift in the film. Midway through, another police officer guns down a guy right in front of the girls. A very sloppy explanation follows but it's still a harsh, violent moment that really sticks out.

What's most frustrating about “Runaway Daughters,” about its inconsistent tone and straight-ahead approach to fifties nostalgia, is that it was very nearly something really interesting and subversive. There's something potent about a story of teenage girls running away from home, defying the authority figures in their lives, to punish a selfish boy that did one of them wrong. You can feel that sense of sisterhood in fun scenes of the three of them eating around a camp fire. Or just driving around in their car, chatting. Despite that really cathartic moment where Laura destroys the cop car, “Runaway Daughters” stops just shy of embracing this girl power message. Bob gets his just dessert but every other girl goes back to their boyfriends, the status quo being restored at the end.

I don't know how much creative freedom the “Rebel highway” filmmakers were truly granted for their films. I imagine they were probably on a pretty tight shooting schedule. At times, “Runaway Daughters” really does feel exactly like the cheap television it actually was. There's a rather flat look to many of the sequences, as characters just stand around and talk or come and go from their various destination. This is most apparent at the end, when the end credits play over images of the actors from earlier in the movie. This just strikes me as such a cheesy artifact of mid-nineties television.

I don't know, maybe I'm being kind of hard on the film in that department. Dante and his team does, occasionally, create a memorable image. For some reason, the interior shots of the houses look really great. There's a wonderfully atmospheric shot of a cop taking notes from the parents, shadows draping over the actors and the set in a really neat way. We get a similarly smoky approach in a shot of Angie and her boyfriend riding in his car. While the characters talk a lot about Sputnik without the famous satellite really meaning anything to the plot, I did dig that final zoom-up from Earth into space, focusing in on the same satellite as it journeys around the globe.

“Runaway Daughters” does have a likable cast. The three actresses playing our main girls are fun to be around. Julie Bowen, as Angie, gets top billing even though she's not the main character. Bowen brings an amusing amount of attitude to the bad girl part, nicely conveying how few fucks Angie gives. Holly Fields as Mary is the story's actual protagonist. Fields has the right amount of vulnerability, making Mary wounded but not insufferable. She has a good scene with a cat, showing off how right she got this mixture. My favorite of the three might be Jenny Lewis as Laura. Lewis is hilarious, showing Laura's sexual frustration through comedic actions.

The DVD case of “Runaway Daughters” makes sure to highlight that Paul Rudd is in this movie. (To be fair, he was also on the original VHS box too.) He plays Angie's boyfriend and fills the role of stereotypical bad boy greaser. Rudd is actually quite good at this, as he pairs smoldering eyes with pretty boy looks. The weasally Chris Young is also well cast as Bob. This being a Joe Dante movie, Dick Miller appears as well. He has a highly amusing role as the detective hired to find the girls. Miller plays the hard-boiled guy as someone exasperated with the world today but in a very self-aware and comedic fashion.

Naturally, another way you can tell this is a Joe Dante movie is the number of cameos he packs in from various cult actors. Robert Picardo, hilariously high-strung, appears as Laura's dad with Belinda Balaski as Mary's mom. (Joe Flaherty appears as her dad, slinging fast food at the drive-in.) Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone are Angie's parents, both highly amusing despite their few scenes. Don Steele, unseen but present nevertheless, is another Dante regular in this film. John Astin and Rance Howard appear briefly as parts of a random militia, being nicely over the top. Lastly, Roger Corman walks on-screen and gets a laugh out of me.

As I've said before, “Rebel Highways” was cooler in concept than execution. Despite an interesting selection of talent – William Friedkin, Ralph Bakshi, and John Milius also made some – very few of the films proved especially memorable. “Runaway Daughters” is probably the second most notable of the series, since it fits in pretty well with the rest of Dante's career. Still, I wish the movie was better. It's mildly entertaining, has some interesting ideas, but more-often-than-not feels like the quickie TV project it absolutely was. I guess even really distinctive filmmakers can only do so much when working on a tight budget and a speedy production schedule. [Grade: C+]

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