There are great performances in the central roles. Phoenix essentially carries the story; it's about him. Lahti and Hill have that shattering scene together. And Lahti and Hirsch, huddled together in bed, fearfully realizing that they may have come to a crossroads, are touching; we see how they've depended on each other. This is one of the best films of the year.
A complex, turbulent tale told with admirable simplicity. Film successfully operates on several levels – as study of the primacy of the family unit, an anguished teen romance, a coming-of-age story and a look at what happened to some political radicals a generation later.
Improbable as some of the plot may be, Lumet's movie -- directed with artful simplicity -- strikes powerful emotional chords. Running on Empty also happens to be the year's best teen romance: quirky Lorna (Martha Plimpton), in stubborn rebellion against her family's Wasp propriety, is a delightfully real teenager. [03 Oct 1988, p.57]