Running on Empty

Movie review by
Scott G. Mignola, Common Sense Media
Running on Empty Movie Poster Image
Wraps around your heart and squeezes.
  • PG-13
  • 1988
  • 116 minutes

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

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.


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

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What 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).

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
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 :)
Teen, 14 years old Written bySun Always Shin... December 31, 2020

Bring the tissues

I love this movie. While it's rarely talked about now it is one of the most emotional movies I've ever watched. The story follows a couple (Judd Hirsc... Continue reading
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... Continue reading

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.

Talk to your kids 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

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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