The first line of Foxfire is pretty dumb. "By senior year, I had it covered," declares Maddy Wirtz, as she rollerblades across the Broadway Bridge in Portland, Oregon. "Or so I thought," she adds. She rattles off the list of shit she has together—"a great guy, sights on college, and the dream of life beyond"—while the band Wild Strawberries wails ominously in the background. But we can assume that she does not, perhaps, have it so covered after all. A thunderclap is heard.
Foxfire is utterly predictable, and takes itself far too seriously for a story about basically unremarkable teenagers. But, having seen it as an unremarkable teen myself, I cannot help but feel a fierce nostalgia for this weird little movie about five girls who form a gang, make mistakes, and realize they don't know as much as they thought they did. Along with films like Ripe, Girl Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides, Foxfire was my mediocre high-school jam: I can't wait until I find out I don't know as much as I think do.
You can feel bound to your close friends by love and tension and fear in equal measure.
The 1996 film is technically based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel of the same title, which was set in 1950s upstate New York. But, aside from the names of the main characters and a loose adherence to the arc (girl gang seeks vengeance on bad guys; it doesn't end well), this movie bears little resemblance to its source material.
Instead, the script transfers the story to mid-90s Portland, and its heroines into archetypes of that era. There is Maddy (Heddy Burress), our flanneled lead, building her art school portfolio out of Polaroids and Microsoft Paint. Rita (Jenny Lewis, just before she transitioned into an indie music darling) is the geeky, shy one who we're supposed to think is chubby, but really she's just wearing sweatshirts. Goldie (Jenny Shimizu) is a druggie, and Violet (Sarah Rosenberg) is promiscuous. What do a sexually liberated girl, an artist, a druggie, and a geek have in common? Nothing until, one rainy day, Angelina Jolie shows up at their school.
Jolie, in the role of Legs Sadovsky, bears little resemblance to her Jolie-Pitt self. This is pre-Academy Award, pre-Billy Bob Thornton, pre-Gia. In Foxfire she's a rough, scary, eerily charismatic teenager, and she may be the only reason this film works on any level. She is the inciting incident in the lives of these young women, hitchhiking into the scene and waking them up to everything that's wrong in their world: Men. The solution: Kick some ass.
There is something undeniably false about the trend of the "squad goals" branding of friendship on Instagram.
A car pulls up in the school parking lot. A pair of Doc Martens and straight black jeans strolls into the building. "Stop right there, young man," a security guard barks, but when the mysterious drop-in turns to face him...it's a super hot girl! She strolls into the nearest science class, where Rita is being harassed by the male teacher in front of all the other students.
"He gets really close, and he touches my ass," Rita later tells Legs in the bathroom, moments after meeting her. Violet comes out of a stall, adding, "He does it to me, too." Conveniently, Maddy is there to ask, "So, what are we supposed to do?" Legs has a plan.
The plan, of course, is to beat up the offending teacher, Mr. Buttinger, which they do. (Goldie walks in during the altercation, so now she's in, too.) With that first triumph (or trauma), these acquaintances are now friends, and when they are simultaneously suspended, the friends become a gang. They gather in an abandoned house, plotting vengeance for the other wrongs done to them. They light candles, take off their shirts, and get matching flame tattoos on their breasts. Legs is the center of their new circle, teaching them all how to be angry and what to be angry about.
Foxfire presents itself as a story about claiming agency over your life, but it's really a fantasy of those things. In real life, beating up a teacher for sexual abuse isn't going to yield true justice. Gangs don't sit around in abandoned houses, lighting candles and emoting, before going home to sleep in their comfortable suburban houses. It's the casual coolness of violence, the implication that feminism means beating up the boys, that makes Foxfire a bit of fumble.
I understand now that learning those big life lessons doesn't happen in abandoned houses in the woods with an acoustic guitar plinking in the background.
What the movie gets right is the depth and intensity of female friendship. There is something undeniably false about the trend of the "squad goals" branding of friendship on Instagram. It misses the mark on the reality of friendship, the way you can feel bound to your close friends by love and tension and fear in equal measure. Foxfire shows us that the best parts of being in a tight group of friends as a teenager are the secret things you share within that circle.
"If I told you I loved you, would you take it the wrong way?" Maddy asks Legs, sitting on a roof one starry night.
"What do you mean 'wrong?'" Legs responds, both wounded and hopeful.
Is it sexual? Familial? All of the above? Maddy has no way to name the love she feels for Legs, so instead they just look at each other. The film is built on these eye-contact conversations. It's not an easy feat to translate that unspoken bond to screen, and truthfully Foxfire doesn't quite succeed. But it does leave enough silence and long looks to remind the viewer of what those moments really, truly felt like.
I don't miss the age when I thought Foxfire was a good movie. I understand now that learning those big life lessons doesn't happen in abandoned houses in the woods with an acoustic guitar plinking in the background. What I miss is the feeling of knowing I didn't have it all figured out yet, and being surrounded by girls who didn't either. It was unsaid but understood, and I do yearn for that comfort. Because, of course, we still don't have it all figured out yet. Right?