From the Revolutionary Novel, a Tempered Film
Foxfire (1996) Starring Hedy Burress, Angelina Jolie, Jenny Lewis, Jenny Shimizu, and Sarah Rosenberg. Written by Elizabeth White (from the novel by Joyce Carol Oates). Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter.
[Spoiler alert: This film-analysis contains major spoilage of both the movie Foxfire and the Joyce Carol Oates novel Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang.]
If nothing else, Foxfire may go down as the only film to give a teenager a larger-than-life entrance. Angelina Jolie (Hackers) steps into the story out of nowhere, heralded by thunder. First we see her foot as she steps from a car; then her back as she walks into a school; finally the camera pans from her rugged boots all the way up to her fashion model face as she steps into a classroom. It's an entrance for a gunslinger or a ghost.
It's quite rare that teenagers get to be this important, even in a teenager movie. Young Guns would not even give Billy the Kid such a grand entrance, choosing instead to introduce him with a shot of the Kid running away from the scene of a crime. Jolie's character is introduced, not fleeing, but trespassing, boldly walking into a school where she is not enrolled. Like a Clint Eastwood cowboy, Jolie's drifter is so mysterious she doesn't even have a name until 20 minutes into the film, and then only the nickname Legs.
Foxfire soon gives us something else that is long overdue: a rebellious teenager who actually rebels. In most movies, "rebellious teenager" just means a teenager who sneers while doing what she is told. (Examples: 10 Things I Hate About You, Pump Up the Volume, The Hunger Games.) But here, Angelina Jolie plays a teenager who could give R.P. McMurphy a run for the money.
Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Foxfire tells the story of people who are weak and submissive, trapped in a soul-crushing institution, until a bold person falls into their prison and shows them how to stand up.
In this opening scene, students are told to dissect frogs. Student Jenny Lewis isn't doing it. Her reluctance is presented, not so much as a strong moral stance, but as a weak act of cowardice. She does not say, "I won't do it," but rather, "I can't do it."
The teacher bullies Lewis. He yells at her. He gives her detention.
Jolie tells another student, "Make him stop." The very suggestion of a teenager "making" an adult do anything is so unheard of in movies that we fully understand when that student looks at Jolie like she's crazy. So Jolie does it herself, freeing Lewis's frog and letting the frog out into the rain. When the teacher threatens Jolie with detention, she laughs at him, "I don't even go here," and climbs out a window.
It's a bold start for a teenager movie. The expectations set by this scene (and by the wild Joyce Carol Oates novel on which the film is based) are gradually disappointed, though, as the film goes along.
The Buttinger Takedown
Soon we learn why this teacher is so eager to assign detention: he likes to get girls alone. In the Oates novel, Mr. Buttinger's sexual harassment is subtle: glances that last too long, supposedly innocent word-choices that drip with dirty innuendo, inappropriate touches he plays off as accidental. The movie, however, removes the subtlety, with Buttinger grabbing Lewis's breast, no excuse offered. Either the filmmakers did not trust the audience to sympathize with victims of subtle harassment or else they were unwilling to suggest that subtle harassment deserves to be avenged. So they give us instead molestation, followed by vengeance that is surprisingly weak.
In the novel, Legs leads students to harass Buttinger, exposing his crimes and humiliating him so deeply he flees the school. Eye for an eye. Problem solved.
In the movie version, Jolie similarly organizes some students to stand together. The buildup to action is riveting. While Buttinger is pawing Lewis, another student (Sarah Rosenberg) barges in saying she left something in the classroom. Buttinger waits impatiently. Then another student (Hedy Burress) walks in giving no excuse at all. Buttinger knows something is up. Then Jolie walks in and shuts the door. There will be no witnesses. Yes, we think, something big is going to happen. Though we're only 10 minutes into the film, it has already been established that Jolie carries a knife. How far will these filmmakers go?
As it turns out, not very far. The knife won't be used as a weapon until later when Jolie pulls it on a teenager.
Instead, Jolie's big move is to grab Buttinger's crotch. I think I speak for most men when I say, Having one's goodies grabbed by Angelina Jolie would seem more a reward than a punishment.
Beyond that grab, it appears their only plan is to give the molester a stern talking to. The teacher becomes outraged at even this defiance of his authority. He becomes violent, and then they beat him up only in self-defense — not as a punishment for his sex crimes. (There is, at least, a threat of further violence against him should his crimes continue.)
We get instead a long stretch in which our heroines hang out, dance, ogle guys, get drunk, and find numerous reasons to shriek and giggle. In this respect, the movie becomes a disappointing fall from — but also a nice complement to — the novel. If Oates' novel had one weakness, it was an inability to relax. Every paragraph is dense with meaning, symbolism, and ideas; the book's tone is always serious. Oates never lets the reader just hang out with the characters. The movie's quiet scenes and playful scenes add what the novel lacked. Unfortunately, the movie has too many of these scenes, sometimes with the appearance filmmakers were struggling to fill screen time. We get montages while hearing cool, pre-existing songs. The screen time could have been better spent.
Oates's novel is about a street gang that rebels against ageism, sexism, economic disparities, and even animal cruelty. The rebellion never stops and offers enough material for multiple movies. This film removes most of that. Most painfully removed is what made the book so special in the first place: the rebellion against ageism.
When this film gets back to doing anything with larger relevance, it focuses exclusively on sexism. The heroines are soon menaced by jocks from their school upset that Mr. Buttinger might lose his job. The jocks threaten, they plot, they try to rape Burress, and ultimately they get Jolie sent to juvi for a while, all out of loyalty to their molesting gender-mate.
This differs sharply from Oates' novel in which the characters all recognize that age defines their place and their problems more than gender, race, or class do. In the novel, no teenager sides with an adult against another teenager (just as no adult in the novel sides with a teenager against another adult). When the Foxfire gang targets Buttinger, a male gang actually follows the heroines' lead, adding their own harassment to break Buttinger and drive him out of the school; they may not care about his subtle sexual harassment, but he is their enemy, too.
The book's male street gang provides a menacing presence, but the Foxfire ladies have only one confrontation with them: a schoolyard rumble that shifts gears quickly enough — the principal intervenes too late, and it becomes a confrontation between Foxfire and the principal. (He orders Legs to surrender her knife, and she challenges him, "You want it? — come get it." You won't see that in any movie!)
The novel is quite feminist, and the Foxfire gang are feminist champions, but there is also a scene that acknowledges young men, too, are victims in need of champions. Legs passes herself off as a young man so she can get a job not open to women in the novel's 1950s setting. She soon discovers the would-be employer is a gay rapist. When he attacks what he thinks is a young man, Legs cuts him with her knife and then relieves him of some cash. The literary Legs is a heroine for all young victims.
The movie brushes aside all that rebellion against adults to give us youth divided in a battle of the sexes.
Feminism, of course, is an important cause, too, but even on that scale, the film is hindered by its unwillingness to further confront ageism. In one scene, our heroines, including a fifth teenager played by model Jenny Shimizu, are walking down the street enjoying themselves until Shimizu's father appears and orders her into his car. Even after all the rebellion earlier in the film, Shimizu meekly obeys. Her friends neither stand up for her nor encourage her to stand up for herself. This film may have the boldness to embrace rebellion against predatory teachers and sexist jocks, but not rebellion against patriarchy.
When Shimizu gets in the car, her father hits her. She doesn't hit back. Her friends just look on with mixed emotion. For these feminist heroines, it seems, protecting girls and defying bad men is less important than submitting to parents.
A film that started with great promise has now lost its nerve.
An Apologetic Ending
In the climax, when they discover Shimizu strung out on drugs, they finally take action against her father, demanding he pay for her rehab. Though he can clearly afford it, he refuses. Jolie pulls a gun on him — and she suddenly becomes the movie's villain. The lighting, the camera angles, and the soundtrack all impress upon us that Jolie is going too far in standing up for a teenager. The other heroines become a Greek chorus, shrieking that Jolie is doing the wrong thing standing up like this for a daughter against her father.
Angelina Jolie gone bad
This climax is similar to, but completely opposite from, the novel. In Oates' version, Legs does go from heroine to villain. But whereas the cinematic Legs' villainous act is being too loyal to a teenager, the literary Legs' villainous act is not being loyal enough.
In the novel, Legs becomes increasingly compromised by financial necessities and increasingly jealous of those with money. She duplicitously befriends a charitable teenager from a wealthy family. She steals from the family. She even outlets her repressed lesbianism by forcibly touching the teenager and trying to play it off as innocent, making Legs no better than the adult predators she fought earlier in the novel. When Legs finally pulls a gun on the young woman's loving father — to kidnap him for ransom — that is just the icing on the villainous cake. In Oates' version, betraying a teenaged friend is the big sin. In the movie, such betrayal is viewed almost as a virtue.
In the film's conclusion, Burress (who is the film's main character if not its most exciting character) refuses to help Jolie rob the abusive father. We are meant to see this as Burress coming to her senses. The father is freed (he then chooses to help his daughter anyway, as the film suggests parents, even abusive parents, deep down are good, which is why punishing abusers would be going too far), and Jolie must run to avoid arrest.
Earlier in the film, Burress had asked to go with Jolie whenever the drifter decided to move on. Now Burress struggles to choose. She can stay behind and go back to her previous life of submission, or she can run with the wild one.
She chooses to stay, rejecting the untamed teenager now that she sees what horrors such freedom can lead to. Indeed this rejection goes so deep that Burress's concluding voice over informs us the other heroines soon ended their friendship, presumably because they were ashamed of having stood together now that Jolie had shown them where such rebellion leads.
The film's ending is almost a complete apology for the film's bold beginning. Almost. In the final shot, Burress climbs up a bridge she had earlier feared to climb, suggesting she is slightly gutsier than she was before Jolie entered her life. So the film does not end with a total rejection of the untamed teen. Like the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Burress is stronger now for having known a strong role-model.
While the film lacks the novel's courage, Foxfire still manages more rebellion than most teenager films do. The few critics who bothered to review this poorly-publicized film often wrote that it was just a rehash of other teenager films except it was about women instead of men. But exactly where are all these teenager films in which youths of either gender beat up a teacher (even in self-defense), hold an adult at gunpoint (even in an act portrayed as villainous), or talk about sticking together against adults? The only film that even came close was Young Guns, a western that, because of its setting, speaks less directly to young moviegoers.
Foxfire, as timid as it is, manages to be something remarkable.
[If your local library doesn't have this DVD on their shelves, ask the librarians to order it, and be sure to let them know it's based on a highly-regarded Joyce Carol Oates novel and might just "get kids reading."]