Monday, February 04, 2013

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (Laurent Cantet - France/Canada) 143 minutes

I’m not sure why Laurent Cantet felt a second film adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel about a teenage girl gang in 1950s upstate New York was needed. The first version, a low-budget American production from 1996 barely registered other than for starring a young Angelina Jolie as Margaret 'Legs' Sadowsky, the gang’s mercurial leader. I’m not really sure why novels must perforce be transferred to the screen anyway, even if they are by as distinguished a writer as Joyce Carol Oates, but Cantet clearly saw something in Oates’ tale of proletarian revolt that aligned with his own leftish social concerns.

Unlike the original version, which vitiated Oates’s vision — and much of her point — by changing the era, the geographical location and the protagonist’s social class, Cantet’s Foxfire is largely faithful. But that’s not to say it’s really any more effective. Filmed in Canada, with mostly non-professional Canadian actors, the film looks the part and gets off to a decent start. A small cohort of teenage girls, some of them bullied by the boys in their school and humiliated by their teachers, form a secret society to avenge their ordeals. The opening half-hour is set up well and the atmospheric surf score by Canadian band Timber Timbre marries well with the action. But you soon begin to question Cantet’s decision to load the cast with inexperienced non-professionals, especially given the girls he casts all look a few years too old for their roles anyway.

Cantet got great performances out of non-professional teenagers for his last film, the Palme d’Or-winning The Class/Entre les murs, but those youngsters were, crucially playing characters very close to themselves. He was also aided by having François Bégaudeau, a former teacher, play himself in an adaptation of his own brilliantly supple novel. With Foxfire, the demands on an inexperienced ensemble cast for a period film are at times onerous and the results not always convincing. Some of the cast are also disappointingly inexpressive, such as Katie Coseni as Maddy, who is entrusted with the narration. It’s a bit unfair to single out a young actress like this but hearing her read Oates' prose is akin to listening to an unmotivated classmate read from a book at a teacher’s insistence.

Another of Foxfire’s failings is its at times slipshod depiction of the era. We see few adults in the film and no parents other than Legs’ errant drunkard of a father. All this is highly improbable for 1955 when American teenagers were still being closely policed by their elders and gives the girls little of substance to rebel against. Similarly, the relationship between a wealthy businessman’s do-gooder daughter and the girls is only partially sketched and remains unpersuasive. And the film is long — 143 minutes — and after its opening half-hour soon loses momentum. All in all, a rather worthy film that irritates more than it inspires.