The continuing shock waves emitted by the cataclysmic events of the 1960s are dramatized in fresh and powerful ways in Running On Empty, a complex, turbulent tale told with admirable simplicity. Film successfully operates on several levels – as study of the primacy of the family unit, an anguished teen romance, a coming-of-age story and a look at what happened to some political radicals a generation later.
The two central adult characters are Weathermen-like urban bombers who have been living underground since 1971.
Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) have been on the FBI’s most-wanted list since bombing a university defense research installation, an act that blinded a janitor. Their life since then has required them to be as unobtrusively middle-class as possible, and to be able to pick up and leave for a new destination on a moment’s notice.
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Son Danny (River Phoenix), now 17, is quickly recognized by the local music teacher as an exceptionally promising pianist, and is nudged along toward an eventual audition for Juilliard. At the same time, Danny slowly commences an edgy but potent first love with the teacher’s daughter Lorna (Martha Plimpton).
Superior screenplay keeps the focus intimate, forcing the head of the family to face the prospect of the family’s breakup so that his son can pursue his own talents and interests.
1988: Nominations: Best Supp. Actor (River Phoenix), Original Screenplay