DIR/WRI: Laurent Cantet • PRO: Caroline Benjo, Julien Favre, Barbara Letellier, Carole Scotta, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss • DOP: Pierre Milon • ED: Robin Campillo, Stephanie Leger, Sophie Reine • DES: Franckie Diago • CAST: Raven Adamson, Katie Coseni, Claire Mazerolle, Madeleine Bisson
“Foxfire” is the name of a gang that Maddy (Katie Coesni) and “Legs” Margaret Sadovsky (Raven Adamson) form in a fictional town in 1950s America. Maddy recounts the gang’s development and their increasingly violent attacks on male victims.
Their high school maths teacher, Mr. Buttinger (Ian Matthews) subjects Maddy’s classmates Rita to humiliation in class. He chides her for spending too much time on making herself look pretty with make-up and not remembering lessons from last week. Outside class, Legs encourages Rita to take a stand. They initiate her into their gang in a ceremony involving candles and tattoos. They take their revenge on Mr. Buttinger, daubing his car in red paint, suggesting he takes an inappropriate interest in young girls. The incident causes him to lose control of his students when he next appears in schools. Their attack pays off.
Foxfire becomes something of a local phenomenon. Their graffiti appears everywhere. The Viscounts, a gang of local youths, fears it’s a rival gang, but the local girls realise what’s happening, and some of them want in. One girl describes their acts as “beautiful”. Their targets are varied. They picket a pet store, demanding “justice for animals”. But at this stage, their actions are nothing more than vandalism.
Maddy describes the gang as seeing itself as “untouchable, invisible, invincible”. She believes the feminist stand the gang takes, long before the burning of bras in the 1960s, is important to be recorded. She asks her uncle Walt if she can a typewriter that he has discarded as junk. When she expresses her interest, Uncle Walt charges her $5 and then $8 when she returns with the few bucks she has saved. He suggests she can have it for nothing if she is a “good girl”, reaching down to unzip his trousers. But the Foxfire gang trapped him and dish out more revenge.
And so, the girls learn to fight a constant male expectation of their sexual availability and turn it to their advantage. Legs becomes increasingly dangerous, taking a knife out on a male schoolmate who attacks a fellow gang member. They steal a car in escaping from that incident, but the car crashes, resulting in capture and punishment set out by a judge. The film reveals the oppression of young women through the education system, their homes and the justice system. Abel, Legs’ father, evades responsibility during the court hearing, saying he can’t handle his daughter anymore, that she’s out of control. That’s what these young girls need, it seems, to be controlled, and Legs and her followers rebel. A period of detention hardens Legs’ convictions, and the second half of the film sees formation of something almost like a cult, under her charismatic leadership.
Laurent Cantet, who directed Oscar-winning French film The Class, elicits good performances from his young female cast. Ademson in particular shines as the determined bolshie Legs. Handheld camera shots in the first half of the film create an edgy, uncertain feel, as the Foxfire group become dangerous and giddy with its own potential. His reliance on Maddy’s narration perhaps reflects a slight discomfort with the English language, as the film lacks the subtlety that characterise his previous works.
Thoughts espoused by an old man on the excitement American socialists experienced in their meetings and discussions in the early 20th century remind us of a history little spoken about in mainstream cinema (Warren Beatty’s Reds apart). He criticises post-WW2 America’s preoccupation with happiness, inciting the girls to live in immediacy, in the fever of motion, in the pursuit. The old man’s speeches inspire Legs, who refers to the “imminent revolution of the proletariat” during initiation. A dream of his death provokes the plan that proves decisive of the gang’s fate.
“Looking is not a crime”, says one of the girls during their pet store attack. “Look with your eyes, not with your hands,” warns a teacher in a visit to a natural history museum. Cantet realises the importance of looking in the context of feminist perspectives. For example, in one sequence, we see Violet (taking on the name Veronica to trick her victim) in a reflection in the mirror, drawing attention to Violet’s awareness of the older man looking at her, seeing her as a tempting sexual object, before she fakes a breakdown, saying she’s only 15 and just wants to get away. Another sequence sees the girls buy ice-cream from a young man they describe as “cute”, thus making him the object of the “gaze” that usually operates the other way.
Angelina Jolie starred in the first film version of Joyce Carol Oates’ 1993 novel. Cantet’s version, more faithful to Oates’ work, may lack such burgeoning star power and is a little long, but it remains compelling for much of its runtime.
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Foxfire is released on 9th August 2013