Running on Empty Movie Poster Image

Running on Empty



Wraps around your heart and squeezes.
  • 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).

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/Streaming 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

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What parents and kids say

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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
Teen, 14 years old Written byTeenageCritic100 August 9, 2015

Tearjerking drama gives you a different look at family life.

This is a really great film with outstanding cast performances, centering around a family on the run from the FBI. Unfortunately, their oldest son falls in love with a girl on one of their stops and wants to be left behind. There is a good deal of cursing and quite a few uses of f**k. There's a couple heated kissing scene between two teenagers and it's implied that they had sex after one. The father is shown drunk. However, this movie is very touching and worth seeing.
What other families should know
Great role models
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking


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