Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang: Toronto Review

A heartfelt, naturalistic period drama whose strong message is hampered by wavering performances and an overstretched plot.

This second English-language project from Cannes Golden Palm winner Laurent Cantet adapts Joyce Carol Oates’ bestselling novel.

TORONTO -- French auteur and Palme d’Or laureate Laurent Cantet (The Class, Human Resources) takes his second stab at English-language filmmaking with Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, adapted from Joyce Carol Oates’ bestselling, 1950s-set novel about a band of proto-feminist teens whose rebellious exploits yield disastrous consequences.

Not unlike his 2005 drama, Heading South, the director’s soft-touch realism and sharp eye for detail are both on display in this handsomely mounted and occasionally moving period piece, but the film is likewise mired by inconsistent anglais performances from a cast of newcomers, not to mention a two-hour-plus running time that ultimately overstays its welcome. Following its Toronto premiere, Confessions will find most of its listeners in Euro territories where the Americana ambiance and retro chitchat plays better with subtitles.

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Sticking closely to Oates’ original story (first published in 1993) and inserting some of the author’s Faulkner-esque prose in voiceovers scattered throughout the narrative, the film centers around a cadre of close-knit high school students living in a deadbeat upstate New York town, their insurgent exploits documented by the shy and unassuming narrator, Maddy (Katie Coseni).

When we first meet her, Maddy’s just another local gal suffering the insults and intimidations of a place where teenage boys rule the roost and young women have few prospects beyond marriage or secretarial school. But all that changes when Maddy crosses paths with Legs (Raven Adamson), a wiry, army jacket-wearing anarchist who urges her fellow females to stick it to the man and take back their dignity. Along with the beefy Goldie (Claire Mazerolle) and the coquettish Rita (Madeleine Bisson), they team up to form an insolent girlpower gang called Foxfire, sealing their membership with homemade tattoos and wreaking havoc on any guy who stands in their way.

Cantet and regular co-writer Robin Campillo fashion a convincing empowerment scenario early on, taking pains to depict a cruel, patriarchal society where rape and abuse are common practice, while poverty, alcoholism and broken homes offer little in terms of protection. The stark and gritty production design by Franckie Diago (City Island) provides a solid base for such circumstances, and regular cinematographer Pierre Milon captures the small-town settings with a naturalistic handheld flair, as if the crew were sent back in time to document the proceedings as they happen.

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But the film runs into some snags when it comes to its cast of relative amateurs, who certainly look the part but sometimes appear awkward or skittish in front of the camera, especially when they’re engaging in the script’s heavier dialogue scenes. Some of the strongest moments are precisely those where there’s no drama at all and Cantet casually lets the girls hang out and be themselves, backing their mischief to buried '50s treasures like Chuck Wiley’s “I Wanna Dance All Night” and Steve Wright’s “Wild Wild Woman”— songs that invoke the bygone thrills of an adolescence forever on the brink of extinction.

As the band literally paints their town red and brushes up against the law, the story starts to flail a bit, until it’s stretched out through a lengthy third act that could easily loose a reel or two. Despite four credited editors, the denouement feels especially loose-hinged when it transforms into a somewhat familiar kidnapping drama — one whose victim, a right-wing banker, bears a scary resemblance to Mitt Romney — in which Cantet forgoes his movie’s realistic grounding for a more dramatic and politically-charged finale.

Despite such drawbacks, Foxfire remains a potent and occasionally touching depiction of feminism avant la lettre, and even if this gang is not always credible, there is at least one standout performance from Admanson as the uncompromising and crafty Legs (a part originally played by Angelina Jolie in a little-known 1996 adaptation). The actress’s scraggly frame, large eyes and Joan of Arc haircut are in sharp contrast to her character’s commanding persona, but she remains someone you'd gladly follow.

Production companies: Haut et Court, The Film Farm, in association with Memento Films International, in co-production with France 2 Cinema and Lorette Distribution

Cast: Raven Adamson, Katie Coseni, Madeleine Bisson, Claire Mazerolle, Paige Moyles

Director: Laurent Cantet

Screenwriters: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet, based on the novel by Joyce Carol Oates

Producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal, Barbara Letellier, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss

Director of photography: Pierre Milon

Production designer: Franckie Diago

Costume designer: Gersha Phillips

Music: Timbre Timbre

Editors: Robin Campillo, Sophie Reine, Stephanie Leger, Clemence Samson

Sales: Memento Films International

No rating, 143 minutes