Joyce Carol Oates's books haven't often been adapted for the screen, but her 1993 novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang has now been filmed twice: in 1996 with a prefame Angelina Jolie and now by acclaimed French director Laurent Cantet. Cantet's film is more accomplished and more faithful to its source material, and yet it is still at best a partial success – a handsomely mounted but strangely prosaic period piece.
It's the early 1950s in upstate New York, and life is tough for the girls at a high school presided over by unrepentantly sexist teachers and infested with sexually aggressive boys, some of whom have broken off into tightly knit cliques. Clever, timid Maddy (Kate Coseni) is resigned to her subordination and loneliness until she meets Margaret Sadovsky (Raven Adamson), a diminutive but forceful girl who goes by the self-administered nickname "Legs" and serves as the ringleader of a self-styled distaff cabal called "Foxfire." Chuffed at their new status, the girls of Foxfire act out in ways that gradually go from rousing (disrupting classes and beating up local lechers) to erratic before reaching a self-destructive fever pitch as student life gives way to young adulthood.
Oates's theme in the novel is the mutation of solidarity into iconoclasm, examined through a prefeminist prism. In the absence of affirmative adult female role models, the girls grasp at equality – social, sexual and economic – in ways that render them both inflated and diminished. It's incredibly rich material that the film only skims the surface of, and even then it doesn't really get its hands dirty. Cantet's scrupulously realistic presentation invites observation without identification. While establishing moral distance in a movie whose characters do questionable things is a valid strategy, it also dilutes any sense of impulsiveness, which is ultimately what this story is about.
The other problem is the ensemble cast, which is weak overall but has its standouts: Adamson's Legs is a credibly double-edged creation, a figure of pure will who evinces persuasiveness while betraying a sense that she's making things up as she goes along. In a different film, the contrast between such a vivid ringleader and her comparatively bland acolytes could be evidence of clever casting, but it's more likely that Cantet – who is making his second English-language film after Heading South – just hasn't directed his other young actresses very well. Coseni is appropriately watchful and anxious as Maddy, yet her performance never quite connects to the bits of eloquent voiceover smuggled in from Oates's novel.
As can be expected from a film whose director has previously won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Foxfire is very nicely crafted, and there are passages that linger in the mind, such as the girls of Foxfire dressed up as witches for Halloween and smearing red paint on a department store display. It's a lyrical interlude with a suggestively sexualized undercurrent, an image worthy of Joyce Carol Oates. But for every similarly well-turned moment, there are two that fall flat. And that's a bad ratio in a movie that stretches out its episodic narrative for nearly two-and-a-half hours.