Hell hath no fury

Lucy Bolton hails a gritty group portrait of a 1950s gang of teenage avengers in all their naivety, anger and passion

August 8, 2013

Foxfire
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Starring Raven Adamson and Katie Coseni
Released in the UK on 9 August

Foxfire tells the story of a group of girls in 1950s New York State who form the eponymous gang with the aim of righting wrongs inflicted upon them by men. They go on to engage in increasingly serious criminal activity, from vandalism and theft to con tricks and kidnapping.

The majority of the actors are non-professionals, and their lack of familiarity, as well as their non-starry appearances and performances, supports French director Laurent Cantet’s clear concern, in his first English-language feature, to create a setting and story with a realist aesthetic. This 1950s America is not glamorous, shiny or nostalgic. Parents are inadequate, families are dysfunctional and men are duplicitous rapists and abusers.

An uncle tries to bargain with Maddy (Katie Coseni) by withholding the typewriter she wants to buy until she performs oral sex. A supercilious maths teacher ridicules Rita for being unable to complete an equation on the board. These are the men upon whom Foxfire wreak their revenge, using violence and verbal vilification, making abundantly clear to them why they are being targeted. They tag their name all over town and begin to get a reputation. They see themselves as avengers and warriors, righting wrongs and addressing injustice.

Initially, therefore, there is a moral agenda to their campaigns. A more political element begins to emerge as Foxfire leader Legs (Raven Adamson) daubs anti-capitalist slogans on the window of an expensive dress shop and introduces the gang to the idea of the redistribution of wealth. They steal a car and are pursued by the police. Legs drives faster and faster and turns the car over in a terrible crash.

This leads to the girls being arrested. Four of them are given probation but Legs gets a stretch in a detention facility for her many offences, which by now include felonies. Upon release, a more committed Legs finds a house for the girls to rent and they establish a community. They need money to support themselves, which prompts a new programme of criminal activity based on conning men into compromising situations and extracting money from them.

These encounters see the girls upping the ante in terms of weapons and violence, while back at the homestead relationships grow increasingly fraught. Maddy overhears Goldie and some others saying that they don’t trust her. Legs asks the group to vote on admitting a black girl she met in the detention centre, but the others vote against it. The group’s own prejudices and principles are called into question, with one of the newer recruits feeling the need to remind them of their founding laws.

Their final heist is to kidnap the father of society girl Marianne, who befriended Legs on a church visit to the detention centre. The kidnapping goes badly wrong and marks the end of Foxfire, as the girls disappear off into the night and Legs once again finds herself driving hell for leather away from pursuing police.

The film’s closing scenes take place in later years, when Maddy (now an astrologer) runs into Rita (now a mother) and they discuss a newspaper photograph of a revolutionary in Cuba’s Sierra Maestra who might well be Legs.

So, the girls have survived, grown up, and most seem to have put their wild days behind them. The film presents the development and disintegration of Foxfire as a recollection, with some snapshots and other more lingering or diffuse impressions, accompanied on a few occasions by Maddy’s voiceover as she tries to piece together their past. Legs is a complex and unlikeable character, whose leadership qualities are depicted in almost messianic terms. In one scene, as a furious Legs runs around waking up the girls and turfing them out of beds, she more resembles Jesus overturning the tables in the temple than a teenage girl entreating her friends to take action.

Indeed, Legs’ rallying cries highlight the naivety and youthfulness of the characters. Her delivery and message sound like a cross between Enid Blyton’s The Secret Seven and the kids from Fame, with “Let’s plan a righteous robbery!” taking the place of “Let’s put on a show!” Through the character of Legs, the film could be seen as a simplistic study of the roots of politicisation: a person who loses her mother and is raised callously by an alcoholic father falls foul of the criminal justice system and thereafter becomes entrenched in any kind of battle that will have her.

However, Foxfire – based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates that was previously adapted for a 1996 feature starring Angelina Jolie – is far more about the politics of the group than the individual. Cantet shows outraged teenagers taking action against clear abuses of power in their lives and forming a consolidated unit of strength and celebration, then charts how the group suffers the slings and arrows of its increasingly morally ambiguous campaign. Their moral outrage is replaced with a sense of justified illegality, underpinned at all times by their conviction that they suffer because they are female, young and poor. The intensity of their emotions and their melodramatic outpourings may seem overwrought, but they successfully convey how momentous these events and conversations were to the girls. Their passion and energy are palpable, if amusingly lacking perspective on occasion.

Cantet’s film prompts comparison with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (released earlier this year), which tells the story of a group of Los Angeles-area teenagers who enter the houses of the rich and famous and steal their belongings. For these contemporary teens, the victims of their robberies are both near and far: in the same nightclubs but in a different stratosphere in terms of fame and wealth. These celebrities’ behaviour may be suspect, such as Lindsay Lohan’s various brushes with the law, but they haven’t directly harmed the members of the gang. The robbers just want to take their belongings and wrap themselves up in a part of their lifestyles. They have no emotional investment in their relationships or their actions, and display no insight or remorse.

In The Bling Ring, all the characters are charisma- and morality-free, and their campaign is purely superficial and acquisitive. The Foxfire gang have their own codes and principles, and these are founded on their nascent awareness of their political disenfranchisement and victimisation. They begin as an egalitarian group of girls who vary in terms of physical attractiveness, intelligence and strength, and they learn to use their particular skills and abilities in the furtherance of their causes. Their campaign is heartfelt and sincere, if vicious and illegal.

The film conveys both well-known and more surprising elements of the teen gang movie, particularly in relation to the operation of different types of femininity. It highlights the misogynist social and moral framework of 1950s New York, just as The Bling Ring depicts an amoral and vacuous contemporary LA. The difference between them is most starkly evident in Foxfire’s initiation tattoos, marking the sworn oaths and commitment to the gang’s principles. This secret rite of passage is far removed from the endless self-publicity of the Bling Ring members, who take pictures on their telephones and publicise them on their Facebook pages. Connecting with the people around them is less important than presenting themselves to a wider public.

At the end of Coppola’s film, the gang appear glib and unscathed. Foxfire’s Maddy and Rita, by contrast, reveal their profound sense of connection with their earlier days, and their hope that Legs is following her principles somewhere in the world is significant, as if they need to believe she has not been defeated. If Coppola’s movie is all about being heartless and amoral, then Cantet’s is the complete opposite: all heart and moral passion, in its dangerous, joyous and self-centred conviction.

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