It's a girl thing

"Girls Town" directed by Jim McKay; "Foxfire" directed by Annette Heywood-Carter

Published August 26, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

into a season inexplicably rich in movies about young women come two about girl gangs: "Girls Town" and "Foxfire." These films have the same basic story -- fed-up high school kids turn vigilante to avenge the misdeeds of brutish males and bond tightly in the process. As plot engines go, revenge has a venerable (and juicy) track record -- why shouldn't girls have their own communal version of "Death Wish"?

"Girls Town" is directed by a man, Jim McKay, who shows signs of taking great pains not to err because of that fact. The movie wears its good intentions on its sleeve, stopping every so often to point them out, just to be on the safe side. The titular girls (all played by grown-up actresses who'd be pushing it as college seniors) discover that a close friend had been raped before committing suicide and go on a modest rampage against the creeps in their lives -- vandalizing a car, robbing an apartment and ultimately attacking their friend's tormentor. McKay created the screenplay using a process similar to British director Mike Leigh's, in which the final script is based on hours of improvisation and character development by the actors. In Leigh's movies ("High Hopes," "Life is Sweet"), this results in performances of remarkable depth. Unfortunately, McKay gets lost somewhere along the way.

While the three principles -- Bruklin Harris (as the angry black poetess), Emma (the middle-class white girl on the academic fast track) and Lili Taylor (the Italian-American, working-class unwed mother) -- acquit themselves respectably, the film labors under too much ideological baggage ever to attain Leigh's rueful verisimilitude. It would be great, for example, if high school students really did form friendships that bridged the chasms of race and (especially) class, but they usually don't. Teenagers, like adults, bond on the basis of shared interests and backgrounds, and the three characters in "Girls Town" apparently have nothing in common beyond the fact that, together, they form a dutiful cross-section of types. They're friends because McKay wanted to show a black girl, a middle-class girl and a poor single mother together, not because girls like these would actually be friends (certainly not in the frictionless way presented here).

Movies like "Girls Town" are made for the kind of audience that wants to leave the theater untroubled, satisfied that other, more unenlightened viewers have received the proper, empowering instruction and positive role models. The girls move smoothly from lumpen insouciance to feminist awareness with nary a doubt or conflict. To portray the baroque mess of female adolescence -- that roiling confusion of bravado, self-hatred, conformity, defiance, yearning for approval and sexual insecurity -- experienced by every teenage girl I, personally, have ever known (including myself) -- would only interfere with the tidy agenda of "Girls Town."

"Foxfire," on the other hand, embraces that mess wholeheartedly, and for all its own outrageous improbabilities, captures it rather well. Based on a Joyce Carol Oates novel and written and directed by women (Elizabeth White and Annette Heywood-Carter, respectively), this movie is over-acted, over-written, over-directed and generally over-wrought -- in short, far closer to a teenager's self-conception than the sober consideration of "Girls Town."

In "Foxfire," four high school students (a brain, an innocent, a slut and a druggie tomboy) are galvanized by a mysterious drifter (Angelina Jolie) who convinces them to beat up their lecherous science teacher. High on transgression, the girls form a secret club -- complete with tattoos and a deserted house in the woods as headquarters. The movie soon spirals off into various ludicrous developments, but on the way it manages to cinch the giddy chemistry found in the passionate friendships of girls. "Foxfire" overflows with shrines built of candles, lacy scarves, photos and other fetishes; extravagant loyalty and offhand cruelty; grandiose plans and interfering parents. The giggly conversation buzzing at the periphery of the main dialogue is one of this film's particular strengths. And, while "Foxfire" is less ostensibly "realistic" than "Girls Town" (and definitely more commercially entertaining), what its melodrama lacks in plausibility it makes up for in high-spirited romanticism.

All of which makes the movie's intermittent forays into softcore titillation especially annoying. As the vagabond Legs, Jolie -- with her pouty lips and suspiciously flattering haircut -- looks like a slumming French starlet and about as dangerous as a kitten. Legs is supposed to be a lesbian, which provides the occasion for that particular brand of gooey, ambient sapphism so popular with male viewers and so exasperating to lesbians themselves. A jaw-droppingly gratuitous tattoo scene -- in which several of the leads shed their shirts and wince under Legs' insistent needle -- had the mostly female audience at a recent screening snickering derisively. Oates' fiction has fearlessly tackled the often troubling polymorphous perversity of female sexual awakening, but "Foxfire" demonstrates how easily this can overflow into bonehead prurience. Perhaps the makers of "Foxfire" wanted to attract the boys who supposedly select the movies for teenage couples on dates?

So many false notes accumulate that by the time Legs is running around waving a gun, the whole enterprise has been overwhelmed by a cacophony of silliness. Just as "Girls Town" could have used some of the zest of "Foxfire," Heywood-Carter's movie would have benefited from some McKay-style restraint. Somewhere in the hazy territory between the two, the definitive girl gang movie is waiting to be made.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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