Foxfire, a new adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel, marks Palme d’Or winning director Laurent Cantet’s English language debut. The history of foreign directors making films in English has been hit and miss to say the least and Foxfire falls somewhere between the two poles.
Set in 1950s upstate New York, Foxfire follows the exploits of a rebellious girl gang who orchestrate acts of vengeance against the town’s chauvinist menfolk. As events unfold, their actions quickly become increasingly violent and relationships within the sisterhood turn sour. An early scene in which the gang attack Maddy’s abusive uncle possesses genuine power. Despite this, the film’s feminist charge is somewhat diminished due to the male characters being crudely drawn stereotypes more befitting of a pulpy exploitation film, but the tone here remains achingly po-faced.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the period setting feels strangely inauthentic: it is as though Cantet’s only previous exposure to 1950s Americana is through watching Grease and Back to the Future, which is by no means ideal when he appears to be aiming for gritty realism.
As with his previous film The Class, Cantet has elected to use non-professional actors but the effect isn’t quite so successful. Whilst Raven Adamson’s performance as charismatic gang leader Legs bristles with the feral intensity of a young Patti Smith, and Katie Coseni impresses as the film’s taciturn narrator Maddy, the other performances are a mixed bag: awkward lines of dialogue (“I’m not tough like you girls”) stick out far too often.
Due to a severely protracted running time, the film loses its momentum before it reaches, what should be, its poignant denouement. Foxfire shares a problem with another film released earlier this year- The Place Beyond The Pines. Both films feel simultaneously too long and too short. Both stories, due to their sweeping, episodic structure, would likely be better served as miniseries as opposed to standalone features.
It would certainly allow for more nuanced characterization. Legs’ transformation, following a stint in a correctional facility, from steadfast idealist to injudicious revolutionary is sudden rather than gradual and, in turn, undermines its veracity. Moreover, the film’s conclusion, set a few years in the future, in which Legs’ whereabouts is revealed feels irritatingly contrived.
In spite of its numerous flaws, Foxfire is surprisingly watchable, due mainly to the story’s effortlessly intriguing central conceit. It has the air of the work of a brilliant filmmaker, albeit without actually being a brilliant film in and of itself. Considering the strength of Cantet’s previous work, it appears that something must have got lost in translation.