Foxfire (1996): Joyce Carol Oates Novel on Screen, Starring Angelina Jolie

Joyce Carol Oates will be disappointed with the muddled screen version of Foxfire, her best-selling novel about female bonding and empowerment.

The film deals with a relevant issue, sexual harassment in school, but tyro director Annette Haywood-Carter gives it the glossy music-video treatment, overpowering the screen with sensual imagery and clamorous soundtrack, which trivialize the thematic significance.

An uneven cast, of mostly unrecognizable names, won’t help much this Goldwyn release reach its target audience, young female viewers, resulting in modest B.O.

Focusing on sexual identity and self-esteem among young women, Foxfire belongs to a new genre of films that includes The Craft and the upcoming Girls Town and Set It Off.

In all of these movies, a group of three or four female adolescents face manifestations of sexism and victimization. However, unlike older generations of screen women, the new protagonists take matters into their hand and fight back their oppressive surroundings.

Compared with The Craft, in which the girls rely on witchcraft, the foundations of Foxfire are considerably more realistic. Four girls who attend the same school, but are not close to each other, suddenly realize that they’re sexually abused by the same biology teacher. On one such occasion, a mysterious outsider, Legs Sadovsky (Angelina Jolie), crashes into their biology class to hide from the rain–and things are never the same. The quintet forms a bond that transforms radically each one of them.

Playing an outlaw–sort of a female James Dean–Legs’ visual introduction is lifted from a Clint Eastwood Western. With pouring rains outside, she steps out of a car, with the camera first zeroing in on her black boots, then slowly climbing up her body, showing her from the back, faceless.

Under Legs’ leadership-and active encouragement-the girls teach their instructor a lesson, hitting him hard where it hurts most. Punished for standing up for themselves, they’re suspended from school. Unfazed, they establish residence at a deserted “mythical” house in the woods, where they engage in ritualistic bonding sessions, including one interminable scene in which they tattoo their bare chests.

Though set at present, murky narrative betrays the book’s original setting–the ’50s. This is especially evident in the way the girls’ complaint is treated by the school authorities and by their male classmates. It’s inconceivable that any principal in the ’90s would suspend students for weeks without a more factual investigation, without giving them a chance to voice their grievance.

A further problem is the conflicted and confused portrait of Legs, who’s clearly a lesbian. There’s physical intimacy and exchange of love and loyalty vows between her and Maddy (Hedy Burress), the central, sympathetic figure. However, lacking honesty and courage, the filmmakers simply drop the issue–as they do with several other subplots.

The movie spins out of control once Legs kidnaps one of the girls’ father, at a gun point, and blackmails him to pay for his daughter’s drug rehab. Last half an hour is inferior imitation of countless male bonding pix, replete with stolen cars, wild driving, police chases, arrests, and so on.

Elizabeth White’s script is messy and misguided. With no exception, all the male roles, from the school principal to Goldie’s father to Maddy’s b.f. to the bullies, are so narrowly defined that they come across as borderline risible caricatures. Matters are not helped by helmer Haywood-Carter, who can’t decide whether to stress the social message–that it’s O.K. to challenge the status quo and question the patriarchal system–or make it a fun movie about the adventurous coming-of-age of “rebellious” girls, misunderstood by their parents.

Picture’s wealth of pretty imagery so overstates the material it almost annihilates any emotional resonance. Night shots are perfectly lighted, with the girls often silhouetted against streams of blue light. Playing a glamorous anit-heroine, Jolie gets a full star treatment by the director, with the camera caressing her sexy lips, big breasts, and beautiful eyes with an almost fetishistic glee.

The ensemble is appealing, but vastly uneven. Jolie is obviously a gifted actress, and Burress has natural charm, but Shimizu looks and acts as if she’s still a Calvin Klein model.

Tech credits are all pro, though story would have benefited from a simpler and cleaner style.

A Goldwyn release of a Rysher Entertainment presentation, in association with Chestnut Hill and Red Mullet Productions. Produced by Jeffrey Lurie, John Bard Manulis, John P. Marsh. Executive producers, Paige Simpson, Mike Figgis, Laura Friedman. Co-producer, Marc S. Fischer. Directed by Annette Haywood-Carter. Screenplay, Elizabeth White, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ novel. Camera (DeLuxe, color), Newton Thomas Sigel; editor, Louise Innes; music, Michel Colombier; production design, John Myhre; art direction, Alan Locke; set decoration, Marthe Pineau; costume design, Laura Goldsmith; sound (Dolby), Jim Hawkins; assistant director, Mary Ellen Woods; casting, Emily Schweber.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 100 Minutes.


Maddy Wirtz…….Hedy Burress
Legs Sadovsky…Angelina Jolie
Rita Faldes……..Jenny Lewis
Goldie Goldman…Jenny Shimizu
Violet Kahn….Sarah Rosenberg
Ethan Bixby….Peter Facinelli
Martha Wirtz….Cathy Moriarty
Mr. Parks…….Richard Beymer