Big Bad World
Back in 1994, Showtime commissioned a string of remakes of teenage delinquent B-movies from the ‘50s as part of its “Rebel Highway” series. Director Joe Dante took on the unsentimental American International Pictures (AIP) film, Runaway Daughters, lightening up the tone to make something of a meta-picture, a movie more about the conventions of the decade’s B-movies. Redoing a ‘50s bad girl flick for laughs in the ‘90s suggests a “you’ve come a long way baby” mentality. What was once considered a serious issue—girls behaving as badly as boys—was now a cartoon for the contemporary audience. The question of why one would reissue it on DVD without any bonus features in 2005 is less easy to answer.
On one level, Runaway Daughters is your basic road movie, tracking three teenage girls who fake being kidnapped, steal a car, and skip town. Mary’s (Holly Fields) boyfriend absconded when she told him she was pregnant, and the girls want to make him face his responsibility. In the ‘50s version, bad parenting would have explained the girls’ desperate behavior, but in this comic adventure, the parents are nice, if inept. This is especially true for the rich girl, Angie (Julie Bowen), whose parents can’t figure out why she’s always bored.
The movie begins dramatically, with a black and white montage of Cold War America. Showing a conformist society with strict gender-appropriate roles, this frame would seem to presume that the ‘90s are a more liberated time. As if to illustrate, the smart girl, Laura (Jenny Lewis), declares that she doesn’t care what the neighbors think and that women are just as intelligent as men. But the film reveals that cultural expectations in the ‘90s were also restricted, no matter how much the audience might believe they had advanced. Think of that classic women’s road movie of the ‘90s, Thelma and Louise, as a comparison, where the women’s limited options led them to choose suicide. Runaway Daughters uses humor to avoid such a traumatic fate for its heroines, but it’s hard to imagine them happy back at home after their grand adventure.
The girls encounter a series of nasty men, bad cops and mad-dog killers. Broadly played, these creepy characters show that the runaways are only mildly naughty. Sure, stealing a car and firing a shotgun to scare the police may be capital crimes, but the girls are morally sound compared with the real villains. The film’s inversion of the ‘50s formula makes the kids all right and adults dissolute. But because the adults watching this movie would have been kids during the period depicted, the movie still manages to reinforce adult values, in that “When we were kids, we weren’t as bad as kids today” sense.
Dante, best known for directing Gremlins back in 1984, is adept at creating uncomfortable laughs, though, as this film’s PG-13 rating suggests, the visible violence is quite mild. He uses clever celebrity cameos, such as AIP head honcho Roger Corman as the proud father of the missing boyfriend, former teen idol Fabian as the father of a juvenile criminal, and John Astin as an anti-Communist loony who believes the girls are spies sent by the Russians, to invite viewers to feel in on the joke. You know: “Hey, isn’t that Fabian, former safe teen rocker, playing a father of a ‘50s bad boy? Isn’t that funny!?”
The movie suggests that the only way a girl can be free and independent is to remove herself from the world of men. The one positive male portrayal is Jimmy (Paul Rudd), Angie’s hoodlum boyfriend who wears a black leather jacket, drives a motorcycle, and says cool things like “Don’t crowd me” to adults. Jimmy doesn’t really do much, but he allows Angie the “space” to be herself. The original movie indicated that it’s a big bad world and girls are better off, safe at home. Dante tweaks the script to show that the girls can take care of themselves just fine, but adheres to the original’s bleak assessment of the outside world where they dare to venture. Times are still dark.