Joyce Carol Oates will be disappointed with the muddled screen version of "Foxfire," her bestselling novel about female bonding and empowerment. The film deals with a relevant issue, sexual harassment in school, but tyro director Annette Haywood-Carter gives it the glossy musicvideo treatment, overpowering the screen with sensual imagery and a clamorous soundtrack that trivializes the thematic significance.

Joyce Carol Oates will be disappointed with the muddled screen version of “Foxfire,” her bestselling novel about female bonding and empowerment. The film deals with a relevant issue, sexual harassment in school, but tyro director Annette Haywood-Carter gives it the glossy musicvideo treatment, overpowering the screen with sensual imagery and a clamorous soundtrack that trivializes the thematic significance. An uneven cast of mostly unrecognizable names won’t much help this Goldwyn release reach its target audience of young female viewers, resulting in modest B.O.

Focusing on sexual identity and self-esteem among young women, “Foxfire” belongs to a new genre of films that includes “The Craft” and the upcoming “Girls Town” and “Set It Off.” In all these movies, a group of three or four female adolescents faces sexism and victimization. But unlike older generations of screen women, the new protagonists fight back against their oppressive surroundings.

Compared with “The Craft,” in which the teens rely on witchcraft, the foundations of “Foxfire” are considerably more realistic.

Four girls who attend the same school but are not close to one another suddenly realize that they’re being sexually abused by the same biology teacher. On one such occasion, a mysterious outsider, Legs Sadovsky (Angelina Jolie), crashes into their biology class to hide from the rain — and things are never the same. The quintet form a bond that radically transforms each of them.

Legs is a sort of female James Dean whose visual introduction is lifted from a Clint Eastwood Western. With pouring rain outside, she steps out of a car, the camera first zeroing in on her black boots, then slowly climbing up her body, showing her from the back, faceless. Under Legs’ leadership — and active encouragement — the girls teach their instructor a lesson, hitting him hard where it hurts most. Punished for standing up for themselves, they’re suspended from school. Unfazed, they establish residence at a deserted house in the woods, where they engage in ritualistic bonding sessions, including one interminable scene in which they tattoo their bare chests.

Though set in the present, the murky narrative betrays the book’s original setting of the ’50s. This is especially evident in the way the girls’ complaint is treated by school authorities and their male classmates. It is inconceivable that any principal in the ’90s would suspend students for weeks without a more factual investigation and a chance to voice their grievances.

A further problem is the conflicted and confused portrait of Legs, who’s clearly a lesbian. There’s physical intimacy, plus an exchange of love and loyalty vows, between her and Maddy (Hedy Burress), the central, sympathetic figure. However, lacking honesty and courage, the filmmakers simply drop the issue — as they do several other subplots.

The movie spins out of control when Legs kidnaps the father of one of the girls, at gunpoint, and blackmails him to pay for his daughter’s drug rehab. Last half-hour is an inferior imitation of countless male bonding pics, replete with stolen cars, wild driving, police chases, arrests and so on.

Elizabeth White’s script is messy and misguided. With no exception, all the male roles are so narrowly defined that they come across as borderline risible caricatures. Matters are not helped by helmer Haywood-Carter, who can’t decide whether to stress the social message — that it’s OK to challenge the status quo — or make it a fun movie about the adventurous coming-of-age of rebellious girls misunderstood by their parents.

Pic’s wealth of pretty imagery so overstates the material it almost annihilates any emotional resonance. Night shots are perfectly lighted, with the girls often silhouetted against streams of blue light. Playing a glamorous anti-heroine, Jolie gets full star treatment from the director, with the camera caressing her sexy lips, big breasts and beautiful eyes with an almost fetishistic glee.

The ensemble is appealing, but vastly uneven. Jolie is obviously a gifted actress, and Burress has natural charm, but Jenny Shimizu looks and acts as if she’s still a Calvin Klein model.

Tech credits are all pro, though story would have benefited from a simpler and cleaner style.

Foxfire

Production

A Samuel Goldwyn release of a Rysher Entertainment presentation, in association with Chestnut Hill and Red Mullet Prods. Produced by Jeffrey Lurie, John Bard Manulis, John P. Marsh. Executive producers, Paige Simpson, Mike Figgis, Laura Friedman. Co-producer, Marc S. Fischer. Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter. Screenplay, Elizabeth White, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Newton Thomas Sigel; editor, Louise Innes; music, Michel Colombier; production design, John Myhre; art direction, Alan Locke; set decoration, Marthe Pineau; costume design, Laura Goldsmith; sound (Dolby), Jim Hawkins; assistant director, Mary Ellen Woods; casting, Emily Schweber. Reviewed at Culver Studios, Culver City, July 10, 1996. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Maddy Wirtz - Hedy Burress
Legs Sadovsky - Angelina Jolie
Rita Faldes - Jenny Lewis
Goldie Goldman - Jenny Shimizu
Violet Kahn - Sarah Rosenberg
Ethan Bixby - Peter Facinelli
Martha Wirtz - Cathy Moriarty
Mr. Parks - Richard Beymer

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