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TV Review : ‘Runaway Daughters’ Travels a Spoof-Filled Memory Lane

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s 1957, and a sweet, barely post-virginal high school girl who’s “late” believes herself to be preggers. A more worldly-wise friend assures her that matrimony is the easy solution to the whole problem, helpfully explaining the facts of life: “Sometimes, when a man and a woman like each other very much, they make a baby! That’s where marriages come from.”

And director Joe Dante is where wry, affectionate, nostalgic spoofery comes from. His “Runaway Daughters"--premiering tonight on Showtime as part of the swell “Rebel Highway” series, where noted directors riff on remakes of old AIP drive-in staples--makes a dandy small-screen companion piece to Dante’s feature of last year, “Matinee.”

Again scripted by frequent collaborator Charlie Haas, it’s very much pregnant with (no pun intended) period chuckles.

Naive Mary (Holly Fields, looking like a younger Sheryl Lee) finally gives in to the sexual advances of her long-suffering boyfriend Bob (Chris Young) after he launches into a soliloquy on the portent posed by the orbiting Sputnik and she becomes convinced that her dudnik is a thoughtful futurist after all. Faced with fatherhood, Bob does what any fine fellow in a spot would do: He pledges his undying love and furtively enlists in the Navy.

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Mary’s two pals (Julie Bowen and Jenny Lewis), leaving behind their own problems with boyfriends and parents, convince her that the three should fake their own kidnaping and drive to San Diego to intercept Bob before his ship sails. What ensues is a modest and funny road B-movie, a juve “Thelma & Louise” with pretensions not much greater than to invoke memories of over-watted Mexican AM radio, Russkie paranoia and hoods with hearts of gold.

This is the type of fond homage in which most characters are named after the original AIP feature’s filmmakers, and there are cameos aplenty, some subtly hilarious (Fabian--yes, Fabian--as a grizzled, beer-swilling dad who nods as detective Dick Miller mutters, “They’re a worthless generation”), some over the top (John Astin and Cathy Moriarty as literal Commie-hunters whom the girls encounter in the woods).

Even those not keyed in to Dante’s in-jokes will probably enjoy the ride, thanks largely to terrific ensemble casting that balances familiar adult character actors with talented unknowns as the troubled teens.

Especially good among the younger set are Bowen as a licentious wanna-be who tries and fails to shock her unusually permissive parents, and Paul Rudd as her bad boy, who repeatedly whimpers “Don’t crowd me!” with all the cool of somebody who’s studied James Dean’s “You’re tearing me apart!” line reading a few too many times.

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* “Runaway Daughters” premieres at 10 tonight on Showtime.


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