A veneer of smeared mascara on a heart of purest bubblegum — that’s the way the pioneering all-femme band The Runaways sounded on arrival in the 1970s. That’s also a fair description of writer-director Floria Sigismondi’s biopic The Runaways, a swift surface-deep tribute to rock ‘n’ roll as the agent of self-invention.

Kristen Stewart is the surly tomboy who would become Joan Jett, the Susan B. Anthony of women guitar heroes; Dakota Fanning, blonde and bruised-looking, plays lead singer Cherie Currie, a blank screen waiting for a projected image. They’re both really good — especially Fanning, who has the more elusive and passive part — and if you never forget you’re watching people playing the parts of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, that speaks more to the power of the roles than the effectiveness of the actors.

What Tolstoy said about happy families being all alike is true of bands on the make: the scenes of the group’s formation, crappy early gigs, rise to the big time and disintegration under pressure could be interchanged with almost any moderately successful act of the era. What sets this apart are the details of the female band members fighting rock’s entrenched sexism at every level, from bottle-hurling dudes to resentful cock-rockers — even as their leering Svengali, producer Kim Fowley (a hilarious Michael Shannon, in madly spieling Lizard King mode), writes checks on their sex appeal.

Jett was an executive producer, and Currie supplied the source book; even if that explains why the other members are mostly glorified extras, it still leaves one hungering for future headbanger Lita Ford’s side of the story — particularly since she’s portrayed here as a jealous shrew when she registers at all. But if The Runaways has any lingering message, it’s that the secret appeal of rock ‘n’ roll isn’t just getting to tell your own story your own way, it’s getting to make it up too.