Foxfire, the eponymous group of Laurent Cantet’s new film, is a secret organisation created by teenage girls who refuse to accept the inferior social status dictated by their age, gender and, in some cases, poverty. They don’t intend to get married, nor see being a secretary as the height of their intellectual ambitions. Most importantly, they don’t want to be treated as dependants and helpless sexual objects. The story comes from a 1950s novel written by Joyce Oats Carol. The film is its second, much more faithful adaptation. The 1996 version with Angelina Jolie is incomparably tamer when it comes to the more threatening issues raised in the novel. In Cantet’s film, the group starts by punishing their oppressors just like they did in the previous adaptation. The girls are, however, much younger and more aggressive. They evolve into an alternative family, which excludes all men and parents, and begin to need money to survive. At first they tackle the problem by stealing from men, but eventually look for more gruesome solutions.
The film portrays the mechanisms which turn people into passive victims, to the point where the idea of self-defence seems surprising, shocking, and even crazy. The girls are used to being mistreated and adapt to the heartless, abusive behaviours of their parents, teachers and peers. By creating Foxfire, however, they turn the tables completely. Rita (Madeleine Bisson), the most sensitive and feminine of the characters, seems most at risk of assault. Her transformation into a self-confident and active member of Foxfire testifies to the strength of the group. The girls discover the control they can have over their own lives as well as the lives of others, thanks to the support they receive from their secret organisation and its rebellious, fifteen year old leader, Legs (Raven Adamson).
The film portrays both the dangers and the benefits of their ideology, their willingness to become one with the group and their need to separate themselves from a society they cannot accept. The girls create a mirror to reflect the world by treating it with aggression and contempt equal to that which they experienced. The sense of satisfaction, which comes from young girls standing their ground, ignoring the constrains of social expectations and dismissing people’s assumptions, turns bitter when they cross the line from strong to cruel and violent. Their mission to create a little utopia in a run-down house, fails. They learn that, within the constraints of society, the only way to avoid being exploited is to exploit others. Legs’ need to protect women turns into straightforward and blind hatred of men. As the determined leader of the group she pushes the girls towards the cold realisation that the gap between social ideals and existence is much wider than they originally assumed.
The film was roundly criticised after its premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, notably for the amateurish acting of the girls and their awkward presentation in front of the camera. This is, however, a conscious choice of the director to invest in realism over theatricality, to show the girls being as natural and uncomfortable as possible. Due to this choice, the scenes of the crimes are charged with overwhelming sense of responsibility and psychological authenticity. These moments carry an intense impression of the girls’ clumsiness and youth. Their behaviour is, in fact, a celebration of their freshness, naive idealism, hope for a better future and rebellious characteristics of adolescence. All these elements could be lost with the slightest nod towards stylisation in their acting. The roles seem not acted but lived. Similarly, the florid, at times exaggerated, language used by Maddy (Katie Coseni), our narrator and Foxfire’s chronicler, comes from the exaltation of the teenage mind rather than the inaptitude of the writer.
The film is very nostalgic. Its pace often varies, from the reflective and heart-warming slow rhythm of the girl’s moments together to the frantic chase near the end. Its considerable length of 143 minutes allows the audience to follow the girls through their story and makes it possible to understand their perspective and reasons, to feel included in their conspiracy. The ambiguity of the ending seems to have all it takes to elicit either love or hate towards the whole film. The film’s subtle, unjudgmental, suggestive style makes it easier to explore the psychology and the moral quandaries of the characters. It’s a brilliant study of youth at its most hopeful and rebellious. It seems to succeed as both a reflection of adolescence and a deep, painful exploration of social entrapment and the price exacted attempting to escape it.