Having taken contempo naturalism to artful new heights in his Palme d’Or winner “The Class,” Gallic writer-director Laurent Cantet makes an unconvincing transition into English-language period filmmaking with “Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang.” Adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ 1993 novel about a take-no-guff teenage sisterhood embracing its freedom and marking its territory in mid-1950s America, this fitfully absorbing drama shows some of Cantet’s signature flair for group portraiture, but lacks the spontaneity, vitality and impeccable thesping of his best work. Some careful trimming might help the overlong French-Canadian co-production burn more brightly in arthouses abroad.
Oates’ book was previously filmed, none too memorably, in 1996, starring a young Angelina Jolie as spunky, street-smart teenager Margaret “Legs” Sadovsky in mid-’90s Oregon. Cantet’s adaptation (scripted with longtime collaborator Robin Campillo) restores the saga to 1950s upstate New York, where Legs (first-time actress Raven Adamson) starts a gang called Foxfire with a few girls at her school. These include her bookish pal Maddy (Katie Coseni), who carefully documents all Foxfire’s activities and thus serves as the film’s narrator; pushy, plus-sized Goldie (Claire Mazerolle); cool, confident Lana (Paige Moyles); and shy, feminine Rita (Madeleine Bisson), who is the target of frequent bullying at school and realizes she could use some friends to look out for her.
Defacing the property of a bullying teacher and beating up a lecherous old shopkeeper are among Foxfire’s early acts of rebellion against a social order that expects women to be ignorant, docile and sexually available; the girls largely get away with their misdeeds, per Maddy, because their male victims are too humiliated to report them. Yet things are never quite the same after Legs steals and crashes a car, a stunt that nearly gets them all killed and lands her in juvenile detention for six months. She emerges with short hair and an apparently new lease on life, although the cool glint in her eye confirms she’s more determined than ever for Foxfire to live life on its own mysterious, not-to-be-trifled-with terms.
From the film’s shaky opening scenes, Cantet doesn’t seem to be in his usual element. The languid establishing shots of a rural Anytown, U.S.A., the clunky explanatory voiceover and the initially indifferent performances reflect an apparent discomfort with the 1950s milieu and its retro-stylized English dialogue. Even as the actors gradually establish a rhythm, and the story begins to spark to life, the film never quite shakes off an awkward, all-too-literary stiffness. It’s an unwelcome shift into conventionality from the director of such crisp, trenchant dramas as “Human Resources,” “Time Out” and especially “The Class,” a far more persuasive evocation of youthful unrest.
Here and there, one does catch a glimpse of what may have drawn Cantet to the material, specifically the chance to observe the gang’s lively, ever-shifting dynamics at length and in depth. Whether chatting, laughing, quarreling or simply hanging about the abandoned house that Legs rents for them all to share, the girls loom large in d.p. Pierre Milon’s widescreen compositions, framed so as to convey a sense of life teeming in and out of the margins. As if to emphasize character over context, the production design and musical choices feel unusually spare for a period film, never eclipsing the intricate nexus of bonds, loyalties and lingering resentments that the film sets out to chart so attentively.
For all its intimacy, the film makes no attempt to glorify Foxfire’s exploits, maintaining a moral if not visual distance from its antiheroines as their struggle becomes one not just for independence, but for survival. It’s not long before the girls begin using their sexual powers in order to lure men and rob them, an increasingly dangerous gamble that inspires them to plot their boldest, riskiest operation yet. Unfortunately, said operation drags on and on in the film’s third act, laboriously sealing the characters’ fates.
The standout performance comes from Adamson as ringleader Legs, her unnervingly watchful gaze seeming to bore a hole into anyone who happens to fall under it. Performances are otherwise OK but uneven, never fully clicking in a way that would give this nearly two-and-a-half-hour picture an emotional center.