Running On Empty April 14, 2016
Being a teenager is hard enough as it is. Not that I’m saying adult life isn’t a confusing nightmare not to be taken seriously; it is. It's just that one's teenage years feel so big: they make for a series of milestones eternally lined with over-expectation. You worry about your first date and your first kiss and your first time driving alone, and you wonder with panic when you’ll lose your virginity, what college you’ll go to, and what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. The older you get, the more you yearn for your childhood, when worries were so small you want to smack yourself for not appreciating the simplicity.
So imagine the life Danny Pope has lived for his eighteen years. He's the son of Vietnam War activists who blew up a napalm laboratory at the height of the conflict, and the family has been running from the law for twenty years. For as long as he can remember, his life have consisted of changing identities and towns every six months. He’s never known a true friendship; the discrepancies of average suburban life are a foreign territory to him. On top of being stricken with the fears that plague youths during their formative years, he is always looking over his shoulder, always guarded in forming new relationships with classmates because he knows that they won’t last.
But now that adulthood is around the corner, Danny, along with his family, know that something is going to have to change sooner or later. Unnoticed by those closest to him is an astonishing musical talent. In their years of turmoil, Danny, keyboard in tow, has metamorphosed into a serious prodigy.
In the first few moments of Running On Empty, the Popes are undergoing their usual shedding of their latest fake names and latest place called home. But something is different in the air, a characteristic amplified when Danny’s talents are noticed by his music teacher on the first day of school. And this recognition affects him with the force of a bullet filled with realization; for the first time in his life, he finds himself pondering what his future holds, pondering what an existence without his family would resemble.
His parents and kid brother can sense it, too, with contrasting states of denial. Danny’s mother, Annie, is aware that he deserves to realize his full potential, but is also crippled by the fear that there’s little chance that she’ll ever see him again if she lets him go. His father, Arthur, covers his dread with fire that sometimes comes across as selfishness; his brother is perhaps too young to fathom the severity of a looming goodbye. The situation grows increasingly pensive when Danny is accepted to Juilliard, and when he begins a romance with the daughter of his music instructor that is more than just fleeting. And so he’s forced to consider what no teenager should have to — choose a life of his own and never see his family again, or continue living the life of a nomad and never see his talents through.
This tug-of-war of emotion is what makes Running On Empty the masterpiece that it is. It isn’t the kind of movie you just love; you also want to hug it, to console it, to prolong it in order to see its characters live their lives more because we come to care about them so completely. Written by Naomi Foner and directed by filmmaking great Sidney Lumet, it is the rare family drama that is void of expectation. We want to spend time with these characters, to be the friend they've never had. If it weren’t for the lethal mistake of Arthur and Annie’s youthful past, what kind of people would the Popes be?
We come to the conclusion that, despite their flaws, they’re pretty terrific ones, ones that are intelligent and loving and open-minded but lack, by necessity, the compassion needed to give their kids a normal childhood. Running On Empty sees Arthur and Annie hitting an iceberg of epiphany, and that’s one of the many reasons why the film so formidably tugs our hearts. Maybe they should have given Danny up to Annie’s parents, giving him the opportunity to stay in one place and to foster his piano talent in a more stable environment. Maybe they should never have conceived Harry, thus keeping him away from the hardships of his lifetime. They love their children, but as Danny comes of age, such brutal questions hit them like a truck, and the emotional toll they take on them inflict a great deal of pain onto us, too. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch, passionate and likable, are phenomenal as Annie and Arthur, sympathetic as they come to realize that running from past mistakes is a losing fight. What a shame it is that their children have to be so dramatically affected by them, too.
So many scenes in Running On Empty are as able to warm our hearts as they are able to break them. The film’s opening, which depicts the Popes going through the usual routine of changing names and towns (packing their belongings into their van, abandoning a briefly kept family dog, staying in a motel and dying each other’s hair, finding a new place to stay, registering for schools they barely belong in), is chilling in the way it rings as so normal for Danny and Harry.
There’s also the sequence illustrating the first time Danny brings over his girlfriend for the celebrating of his mother’s birthday; such love and joy becomes the scene, but we can never fully enjoy its events because we aren’t so sure this girlfriend will be able to stick around for much longer.
And then there’s the brutal progression of Annie being informed that Danny has been accepted to Juilliard, having no idea that her son was even that gifted to begin with, and then inconspicuously meeting her father (whom she hasn’t seen for fourteen years) to beg him to take Danny on to back his potential endeavors. Lahti is brilliantly emotive in this scene, stunningly convincing, and we come close to losing it ourselves after she departs the diner and her father breaks down.
But the best thing about the film is River Phoenix, whose tragic 1993 death is especially tragic after seeing just how magnificent he is in Running On Empty. Only seventeen during production, Phoenix has qualities only seen in such heavyweights as James Dean and Leonardo DiCaprio. As if his character weren’t already empathetic enough, we never stop speculating how his career might have gone had he never died. You know he would have only gained momentum in his respectability.
Danny is a role made for him, reflecting the shy, sensitive persona he emitted in his public life. The character is unlike most victims of the coming-of-age film, as he’s deeply wounded by the way his life has never proven to be average, always unpredictable and always emotionally detached. Being a quiet, perceptive young man without the brass to speak his mind — he adores his parents too much to complain, anyway — he’s stayed neutral to avoid conflict, keeping his musical talent out of the limelight to take attention off of himself and maybe because he’s too humble to even realize how much he might have to offer.
As his eyes open and he begins to understand that it’s highly likely that he could make it on his own, we feel the same awakening he does — what would it be like to live your dreams instead of tuck them away? His relationship with Lorna (played by an excellent Martha Plimpton) is especially touching; so true is their connection that our hearts ache as we wonder if their romance will make it, or if it will be destroyed by the Popes’ next move.
Movies like Running On Empty are treasures I only occasionally stumble upon — it’s seldom that a drama turns you into something more than a casual viewer. The film is a waterfall of emotion, and it leaves you shaking. And that’s just how I like it. A