Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang Review
Upstate New York, the early 1950s. Maddy (Kate Coseni) has the task of chronicling Foxfire, the gang of teenaged girls she was part of, led by Margaret Sadovsky (Raven Adamson), nicknamed “Legs”. It began when they defended Rita (Madeleine Bisson) from a predatory teacher. At first Foxfire specialises in small acts of revenge, especially against men, but it soon escalates...
Joyce Carol Oates's novel was first published in 1993. Although Oates has written young-adult novels in her time, despite its teenaged protagonists this wasn't one of them. That said, it has found a place in many high school libraries...and been banned from several due to its language and content. It has been filmed once before, in 1996, that film featuring an early lead role for Angelina Jolie. The earlier version, which updates the story from the 1950s to a contemporary setting, was less than successful – it went straight to VHS in the UK. An English-language new version, much more faithful to Oates's original, set in the USA though filmed in Canada, would seem an odd choice for Laurent Cantet to follow up his Palme d'Or-winning Entre les murs (The Class) but here it is, and it does the novel justice. (Pedantic digression: the title of the novel is Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl-Gang and that, minus the punctuation, is the title of Cantet's film. The 1996 film is called simply Foxfire.)
Cantet and co-scriptwriter Robin Campillo provide a somewhat streamlined version of the novel, with some trimming of episodes in its middle-section. (We don't get to see Legs apply for a job dressed as a boy. Also, perhaps mercifully, we don't have a scene where the Foxfire girls witness the sexual exploitation of a woman with dwarfism.) But for the most part the adaptation sticks closely to Oates's novel, even to the extent of lifting whole lines of dialogue. It also doesn't, unlike the earlier film version, softpedal the politics. The 50s was a time of anti-Communist hysteria but Legs's politics are formed early on by listening to Father Thierault (Gary Reineke), a defrocked and alcoholic priest with a history of left-wing activism. Also, homoerotic overtones in the relationships between the girls, and Maddy and Legs in particular, are not shied away from.
Maddy is our narrator, or chronicler, though as with the novel she's not an entirely reliable narrator, admittedly piecing the story together after the fact from notes made at the time and often dramatising scenes where she was not present, such as the majority of the last twenty minutes. The film does not condemn Foxfire's idealism, but is clear-eyed about how much it goes in hand with naivete. Also, while proto-feminism is at the core of their beliefs, they don't avoid blind spots in other areas: such as the scene where they are less than welcoming to a potential new girl who is black, to Legs's disgust. And, at the end, when many of the girls have settled into conformity, Legs is seen to have continued to embrace revolutionary politics. At heart, Foxfire is a portrait of a time in these girls' lives, a time which they can say, in Father Thierault's words, “One day, after the last roll of the dice, we will wake up as if from a dream and we will say, Yes...I was happy then.”
Cantet, shooting digitally, echoes his work on The Class by his use of handheld cameras. The cast of unknowns are fine, particularly Raven Adamson and Kate Coseni in the two key roles. I'm not qualified to comment with any great authority, but the period detail is fine. The film's virtues and faults are those of the novel, which slackens its momentum in the final act with a lurch into melodrama. Oates has proven to be a difficult novelist to get right on the big screen, but this version of Foxfire does its source justice.
Foxfire gets a DVD only release from Artificial Eye. The disc is dual-layered and encoded for Region 2 only.
The film was digitally captured on the Arri Alexa, which captures at 2.8K resolution. The DVD is transferred in the correct ratio of 2.40:1, anamorphically enhanced. The image has a desaturated look, tending towards brownish, but I've no doubt that's intentional and part of the film's period evocation. It's certainly what I remember seeing in the cinema and there's no reason why a production which has been entirely digital from shooting via intermediate to cinema showing (not counting 35mm cinema prints, if there were any – I was at a DCP showing) to disc to look any different.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0) variants. There's little to choose between them, with the surrounds being mostly used for music and ambience. The dialogue is clear, which is just as well as this DVD of an English-language film has no subtitles available for the hard of hearing.
The main extra is an interview with Laurent Cantet (20:26). Speaking in French (with fixed English subtitles), he describes how he had read the novel, and the prospect of using teenaged protagonists enabled him to access their energy, as he had done with The Class, though that did involve a long casting process. The filming itself was done with two handheld cameras, with scenes often being shot in single takes, giving as much room as possible to the actors.
Also on the disc is the theatrical trailer (1:52).
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Last updated: 06/08/2018 20:54:27