Running on Empty (1988)

5 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Children, and even teenagers, sometimes feel like they’re being punished for crimes they didn’t commit. In the case of Danny Pope, they don’t know the half of it. Here’s this kid who has not only moved from place to place, but also changed his entire identity countless times, along with his family. He’s living in a world of secrets and hiding. He can pretend to lead a normal life, every time he moves to a different place and engages a new identity, but he never truly will. And it’s all because of his parents.

Danny has kept an enormous secret with the family. Before he was even born, his parents were radicals in the ‘60s. They blew up a napalm laboratory, nearing killing a janitor whom they didn’t know would be there. Since then, they’ve been living underground, hiding from the authorities and raising Danny and his younger brother to their same lifestyle. Every time it seems like their identities are discovered, the Pope family moves away to create new ones.

The Pope family are the central characters in the film “Running on Empty” and it tells the story of how Danny (River Phoenix), now a high school senior, would love to live a normal life, for once. He’s a gifted piano player and has finally shown his gift in this new town to his music teacher at school. With the teacher’s help, Danny gets a scholarship to the Juilliard School. But he can’t accept it, because then he would have to abandon his lifestyle and leave the family.

For Danny, this is his chance to actually become an individual. Why must he pay his parents’ mistakes? Why shouldn’t he go out and live his own life, now that he’s turning 18? For his parents, it’s a real complication. His father Arthur Pope (Judd Hirsch) is a real hard-ass who has kept the family in line for years and is not about to mess it up now. He either doesn’t understand Danny’s plight, or simply doesn’t want to understand. Then, there’s the mother Annie Pope (Christine Lahti), who has made her mistakes and barely regrets them because she did what she felt she had to do, back in the time when radical politics were hers and Arthur’s lifestyle along with others in the ‘60s. What she does care about, and what causes her heart to break, is the fact that Danny would be sacrificing his future if he stays hidden, paying for mistakes that she made. She doesn’t know if she can handle it. The big issue is that if Danny comes clean and goes to college, he can’t see his family again because he may just have the FBI following his every move—who knows?

This is all powerfully well-done and very effective in the way this family’s lives are developed and how their plight is legitimately told. We see it right away in an opening scene in which the family must leave another town—they leave their dog on the side of the road and drive away, and it feels like this isn’t the first time they’ve done this. Then there’s the situation of Danny gaining more than he did in previous lives—not only with his music and the college scholarship, but also with his first girlfriend (Martha Plimpton). She’s the daughter of the music teacher and together, they form a trusting relationship in which there are hardly any secrets, leading to the scene in which Danny finally confesses and tells her everything she wanted to know about him—how it begins: “My name isn’t Michael…It’s Danny.”

The emotional high point of the film comes during the question of whether Danny will go to the school. The film’s strongest scene features Annie arranging to meet her father (Steven Hill) for lunch—she hasn’t seen her father for years, since she disappeared from his life completely. Now she must ask him to take her son away from her so that he can live the future that she has denied herself. It’s a very heartbreaking scene.

“Running on Empty” is an extremely moving drama about choices and about consequences. It’s well-acted, especially by Christine Lahti and River Phoenix (who, despite his character’s story being told, was only given a Best Supporting Actor nomination), and well-executed, with direction by Sidney Lumet and a great screenplay by Naomi Foner. This easily could have been a throwaway melodrama made for TV, but it’s smarter than that. It’s played in a realistic way and is specific in exactly what it’s trying to convey. It’s a great film.

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