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How well-meaning feminist Annette Haywood-Carter thinks she’s advancing the cause of women by directing the teenage girl-gang story Foxfire is either a mystery or a conspiracy. Rush Limbaugh—Norman Mailer—could not have turned Joyce Carol Oates’ novel into a more goofy, clichéd, shallow, and ridiculous coming-of-age film or made it more insulting to the young girls it purports to respect.

This really happens: During the extended opening, all we can see of The Mysterious Stranger, arriving during a rainstorm like a force of nature herself, is her black boots. For some reason, this ramblin’ gal, on the run from anything that smacks of the System, ducks into a high-school classroom, where a timid girl is being bullied by her science teacher into slitting open a live frog. Everyone in the classroom is jeering at the shy girl because, as we know, high school is a place where no one thinks for herself until a mysterious stranger comes along and shows her how. The mysterious stranger frees the frog, winning the respect of shy girl Rita (Jenny Lewis) and the agog admiration of audience stand-in Maddy (Hedy Burress, who should know better).

Then they all go to the bathroom, where Rita tells them that the teacher has been harassing her and the mysterious stranger insists that they’re all in this together. Inexplicably, they agree. Joined by Violet (Sarah Rosenberg—great face, no character) and eventually Goldie (the model Jenny Shimizu), they beat up the teacher and get suspended, whereupon they spend the next week in an abandoned house on the river, lighting hundreds of ivory candles and indulging in wacky homoerotic frolics.

The mysterious stranger (Angelina Jolie) mistakes being a catalyst for sitting around and smirking at her little charges knowingly while they taste the giggle-inducing freedom of a braless all-girl existence. Meanwhile, Maddy grows more befoggedly lustful, insisting that she can’t live without the stranger, which is absurd because she’s not only a wet blanket at parties, she’s a lousy conversationalist: “Where do you live?” “Mostly in my own head. I’m just passing through,” etc.

Why these girls are outsiders to begin with isn’t clear; why their parents never seem interested in having them home, why the telephone works in an abandoned house, and why they don’t smack the mysterious stranger the 400th time she responds to a question with a knowing smirk are other Foxfire mysteries. Another is what’s so uplifting about this story. If the new Lolita even approaches Foxfire’s level of pseudo-respectful pseudo-unconscious teenage sensuality, Adrian Lyne can count it a success. Jolie is Jon Voight’s kid, and she’s got his lips times 10, matchstick arms, and tits like fat Angora rabbits straining to be free of her clingy T-shirts, which they sometimes are. David Hamilton would not be ashamed of the group-tattooing scene.

Oates’ novel, apparently, is set in the 1950s, when forming a girl gang and wreaking vengeance on rotten men was a much different proposition from doing the same in the harassment-touchy ’90s. These girls, some with bright futures, allow the hypocrisies of the system to destroy them—there’s a way to expose the teacher, stay in school, and turn in that college application on time; a little spin could even help turn the suspension into a noble sacrifice. In the ’50s, girls who did what they did would be made pariahs, but when the movie characters celebrate their triumph by unnecessarily dropping out, it sends a message entirely more trivial than the one intended: Men are bad, but girls are cute.

In Girls Town, Jim McKay’s freewheeling, aggressive debut, which he and the actresses shaped through extended improv and other immersion techniques, the raising of youthful female consciousness isn’t a simple change, nor are the reasons for it straightforward. Patti (Lili Taylor), Angela (Bruklin Harris), and Emma (Anna Grace) think they know that women deserve to have freer lives than they usually end up living, and that avenues of power and retribution are available to them, but they don’t know they know it until the fourth corner of their solid block of friendship, Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis), commits suicide.

Wised up by the Jersey-or-maybe-New York streets but really just curious, angry high-school girls looking for simple answers, they pay an awkward visit to Nikki’s mom. They want to offer condolences as well as search for reasons, but the probing keeps turning back to themselves—“Did she leave anything?” they ask. “A note?” “Did she say anything about us?”—the balance between their naivete and savvy is constantly being tipped and reasserted.

Taking the girls’ guilt as selfishness, and their scruffy, oversize sartorial signals as flippancy, Nikki’s mom turns them out, but not before Emma has nipped into Nikki’s room and pinched her diary. When they read it later over candlelight and 40-ouncers, Patti’s little girl asleep in the corner of a crummy basement, they find that the secretive, poetically minded Nikki told her diary what she didn’t tell her friends—that she was raped by her supervisor at a newspaper where she interned.

This revelation causes the girls to speculate uneasily on the nature of friendship—uneasily because the outraged disbelief at which they greet the fact that such a monumental event went unreported (to them) is tempered by the fact that they all hide stories of similar mistreatment. With an almost superstitious fear that their own reticence could lead to death, they make their confessions.

In a worse movie, this scene would have been solemn and chaste, filled with gravely nodding heads and faltering voices. But these girls are too scrappy to get hushed in the presence of a rape story—Angela disses Emma for getting into a jock’s car in the first place, they both turn on Patti for not only letting a jerk hit her but for having the jerk’s baby. They don’t come to a decision that night to take their revenge against the patriarchy; they just start to notice stuff that before they could slough off. And when they begin to react—violently, even criminally—they feel no pain, no guilt, no horror, just the joy of commandeering a little freedom.

Nikki’s death hovers as a symbol and a threat as well as a genuine loss. When they start to act up, it’s always “for Nikki,” like an invocation or a prayer to a vengeful god, as if suicide is something that falls down on the heads of girls who don’t stand up to disrespect. Even the method of her death is left unclear—like the fulfillment of a curse, or an act of God, it just happened.

The three characters are so recognizably human that it’s a relief they aren’t recognizably famous actresses, except for little-film staple Taylor, fresh from doing Valerie Solanis as a shuffling Columbo clone in I Shot Andy Warhol. She has the potential to be the second-most annoying actress in the world—Jennifer Jason Leigh, come on down!—but does a fine job here as sassy, stroller-pushing 21-year-old high-school student Patti, a cheery homegirl with pretensions to toughness she’s basically too sweet to uphold. Confronted by her pig ex on the street, she defends Emma and Angela against his mockery in surprising terms, all the more passionate because of their mildness. “I don’t got stupid friends,” she screams. “I got nice friends!”

Bruklin Harris debuted in the little-seen gem Zebrahead, and her Angela is beautiful and unnervingly controlled, her boredom disguising bitterness. Anna Grace’s Emma is pitch perfect, from her rolling, tomboyish walk to her unremarkable but infinitely expressive features. White Emma’s friendship with the black and Latino girls in her neighborhood carries no fizz or tingle of weirdness, not a moment of discomfort or self-consciousness. That she and Angela, college-bound both, would find more to bond on with careless, loyal fuck-up Patti than with the local grinds speaks volumes about this movie’s aspirations to veracity, and its clear-eyed, kind, and unsentimental vision of girlhood. CP