Running on Empty

  • Review Date: October 18, 2005
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1988
  • Running Time: 116 minutes

Common Sense Media says

Wraps around your heart and squeezes.
  • Review Date: October 18, 2005
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1988
  • Running Time: 116 minutes





What parents need to know

Positive messages

A teen crawls through a window into his girlfriend's room at night (just to talk).


Danny's parents were part in the 1971 activist bombing of a napalm lab.

Not applicable

An isolated five-syllable outburst contains the "f-word."

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking
Not applicable

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the movie features an emotionally intense theme -- two boys facing the loss of their parents at any time -- that may be unsuitable for younger or more sensitive kids. Other than that, there's one isolated outburst of profanity and a teenager crawls through a window into his girlfriend's room at night (only to talk).

Parents say

Kids say

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What's the story?

A 1970s protest bombing made his parents fugitives, but after a decade and a half, Danny Pope is tired of running. Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti) run from the past, namely from their part in the 1971 activist bombing of a napalm lab that the FBI is hot to nail them for. Their elder son, Danny (River Phoenix), who's been part of their fugitive life since age 2, doesn't want to run anymore. He wants to quit changing schools, his name, the color of his hair. He wants to go to college and study the piano. He's told he has great promise. Danny's also in love with his music teacher's daughter, Lorna (Martha Plimpton) and can't bear to think of their inevitable separation. His parents sympathize, but to cut him loose is to risk never seeing him again, or at best to see him only rarely, through risky secret meetings. The choice is too agonizing for Danny to make on his own.

Is it any good?


RUNNING ON EMPTY starts off pretty slow, but once you accept the characters and their particular situation, the movie starts coming fully to life, wrapping itself around your heart and squeezing. Hard. Sure they're fleeing the law, but the Popes do it cleverly, peacefully, and ultimately with their lads' best interests in mind. The performances are good and the story a compelling and original one, but the characters take a while to warm up to. Sydney Lumet's tale of a boy who must choose between his family and a life of his own builds slowly to something passionate, admirable, and refreshingly original.

The film's greatest strength comes from the thoroughly believable relationship between Danny and Lorna. Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Danny. All of the FBI and activism stuff is just frosting and rosettes; these two are the real cake of the movie. College-bound teens will identify with Danny, a strong central character who, on a grander scale, is experiencing something we all go through in the course of growing up: making life-changing decisions.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the coming-of-age stories. What sort of conflicts do kids usually face in a story about making the bumpy transition from childhood to adulthood? Can you think of other such stories, either in books, in movies, or on television? How do they compare to this one? Does this movie seem like a typical coming-of-age story?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:September 9, 1988
DVD release date:April 26, 1996
Cast:Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch, River Phoenix
Director:Sidney Lumet
Studio:Warner Bros.
Run time:116 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:previously rated R

This review of Running on Empty was written by

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About our rating system

  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

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  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
  • Very Good: Engaging; good learning approach.
  • Good: Pretty engaging; good learning approach.
  • Fair: Somewhat engaging; OK learning approach.
  • Not for Learning: Not recommended for learning.
  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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Adult Written byEvanReviews August 15, 2009

Perfect Drama for Teens and Adults

I thought it was a good movie. 3/5. Only thing parents should watch out for is in one scene he says the F word about 7 times :)
What other families should know
Too much swearing


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