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Like Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winning The Class (2008), his new venture Foxfire is similarly concerned with institutions and with the distinctly Freudian notion of in groups and out groups, this time through its preoccupation with the dynamics of a rebellious, anti-authoritarian group of misfit high school teenage girls who form a gang that is chiefly distinguished by its opposition to societal norms and conventions that they believe strangles women’s freedom. Set primarily in the leafy small town suburbs of 50s New York, its milieu is visually captured through an idealistic, iridescent lens, falsely providing a veneer of ostensible tranquility that stands in sharp contrast to the somewhat tumultuous reality of the world in which this group of girls inhabit. A world governed by a patriarchal order in which rape and misogyny is common practice, these unsavoury acts are however suppressed as both men and women display false façades of decency.
This subversiveness makes Foxfire richly nuanced, and perhaps accounts for its slightly longer than average run time of nearly two and a half hours. The positive result of this is that it allows for an almost literary (this film was adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates) development of its characters, and shows a certain psychological realism that is often lacking in many emaciated Hollywood characterisations. However, arguably this measured approach does begin to lose its efficacy when more characters are added later in the narrative when the girl gang grows in size. These added characters feel superfluous and attention seems to be diluted too thinly between them, some almost serving no more purpose than as mere window dressing.
This being said, the performances of these more peripheral characters are astonishingly good, especially considering that they are played by predominantly non-professional actors. One of these is Rachel Nyhuus, who plays with great assurance ‘the pretty girl’ of the group Violet, potentially a bright prospect for the future she was actually scouted from a local school. Admittedly, though these minor performances radiate, it is undoubtedly Raven Adamson as the spiky spunky Legs who provides the film’s life-force, aptly named she ignites all narrative forward momentum, shaping all the key events. With a frenzied single mindedness she assembles her gang and establishes her devoutly feminist ideals, whipping up a militant fervour that is used to powerful effect against these perceived societal injustices.
The gang begin with the committing of low level offences such as grafitting a women’s clothes store and the school with their own logo; acts which as-well as being feminist statements also patently show Marxist pretensions with their anti capitalist sentiments. These activities resemble those of the similarly activist group of young rebels in Something In The Air (2012), set in a turbulent post May 68′ Paris it also features a strong, combative female lead. Also paralleling this film, the severity of the girl gangs acts start to escalate, reaching a telling peak when Legs is caught brandishing a knife on a boy outside the school. This results in her being sent to Redbank correctional facility, a plot detail which seems to chime with the Red Centre in The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood, a women only centre run by nuns. The book features a feisty feminist character called Moira who rebels against the nuns in the centre, and Legs seems to be in a similar mould; on leaving the facility Legs is all the more determined to bring down the establishment. With her newly cropped hair she takes on a more androgynous appearance, and this androgynous nature spreads to her behaviour as she is shown to be capable of more typically masculine behaviour, as well as ruthlessly Machiavellian in her schemes.
This becomes problematic with relation to any feelings of pathos towards her, and consequently results in a uncertain ambivalence of emotions. The morals of Legs can be called into question for instance with her displaying an increasingly contradictory distance between her ideals and her actions; railing against capitalism yet yearning for more money, and openly flouting the abuse of women whilst vociferously venting her frustrations on the other girls. This dissolution of emotion for the main character may however be an intriguing deliberate ploy to expose the complexities of the situation and to convey the idea that though undeniably female oppression is rife, it is a highly dangerous and potentially self defeating course of action to adopt the very sort of controlling brutality as that which you are supposedly riling against.
Though there’s clearly a marked political slant present, the politics form more of a painted set backdrop to the film for that which is most central; human emotions. It is the humanist attention to the bonds forged between these girls that is at the heart of Foxfire, and this is achieved with an admirable and incisive naturalism.