The story revolves around parents Annie and Arthur Pope (Lahti and Hirsch) who in the 1970s were responsible for the anti-war protest bombing of a napalm laboratory. The incident accidentally blinded and paralyzed a janitor who wasn’t supposed to be there. They’ve been on the run ever since, relying on an underground network of supporters who help them financially. At the time of the incident, their son Danny (Phoenix) was two years old. As the film begins, he is in his late teens, and the family (along with younger son Harry) are again relocating and assuming new identities.
As the film progresses, Danny’s overwhelming talent as a pianist catches the attention of his music teacher at school. The teacher begins to pry into Danny’s personal life, particularly questioning why records from his previous school are unobtainable. While he pushes Danny to audition for Juilliard, Danny also falls in love with Lorna (Plimpton), the teacher’s teenage daughter.
As the pressure to have his own life and realize his own dreams intensifies, Danny reveals his family secret to Lorna. Meanwhile, Annie finds out about Danny’s audition, and begins to come to terms with the fact that she must let her son go and find his own way. This does not sit well with Arthur, even as Annie risks their safety to contact her estranged father and arrange a home and life for Danny if they should decide to leave him behind.
Running on Empty is a 1988 drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring River Phoenix, Judd Hirsch, Christine Lahti, and Martha Plimpton. It was produced by Lorimar Television. It is the story of a counterculture couple on the run from the FBI, and how one of their sons starts to break out of this fugitive lifestyle.
Phoenix was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film; Naomi Foner was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Phoenix was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role at the Golden Globes; Lahti was nominated for Best Performance by an Actress. The film was nominated for Best Director and Best Motion Picture (Drama), and it won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Plimpton was nominated for a Young Artist Award for Best Young Actress in a Motion Picture. In a backstage interview on March 21, 1989 at the 61st Annual Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon, Phoenix expressed his wishes for the film to have a sequel.
The film marked the second time that Phoenix and Plimpton played romantic interests, having co-starred in the film The Mosquito Coast two years earlier.
Running on Empty (1988)
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: River Phoenix, Christine Lahti, Judd Hirsch, Jonas Abry, Martha Plimpton, Ed Crowley, L.M. Kit Carson, Steven Hill, Augusta Dabney, Lynne Thigpen, Marcia Jean Kurtz
Screenplay by: Naomi Foner
Production Design by: Philip Rosenberg
Cinematography by: Gerry Fisher
Film Editing by: Andrew Mondshein
Costume Design by: Anna Hill Johnstone
Set Decoration by: Philip Smith
Art Direction by: Robert Guerra
Music by: Tony Mottola
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: September 9, 1988