Dir: Laurent Cantet. France-Canada. 2012. 143mins


It might have been more coherent on the pages of Joyce Carol Oates’s 1993 novel about five teen-aged working-girls who formed the eponymous secret society in upstate New York in 1955, but, in this second film version (the first, directed by Annette Haywood-Carter in 1996, starred Angelina Jolie as their beautiful leader), almost everything is amiss.

The small-town milieu feels contrived and false.

French director Cantet, who displayed skill with ensembles and narrative fluidity in the Palm d’or-winning The Class (2008) and an overall command of film style in such films as Human Resources and Time Out, loses his grip with this overlong, off-key affair, shot in English, that does a disservice to its underlying prefeminist politics.

The small-town milieu feels contrived and false, timing is way off, especially in the dialogue department where Canadian dipthongs undermine the American setting, and the cinematography often far too muddy. Box-office prospects are slim, except perhaps in co-producing countries France and Canada and a few territories that might not get the bizarre use of language and off-base depiction of the US at mid-century.

The film could have been at least progressive, given the rampant sexism of the fifties and the general submissiveness of women in a man’s world, but the subject comes across as dated. That the characters are such outright stereotypes - Goldie (Mazerolle) is fat and confident, Violet (Nyhuus) is the blonde beauty, Maddy (Cosseni) and Rita, the group’s chronicler (her prose is faux-lyrical, containing overdone metaphors - “life is like a twirling star” - that echo the self-consciousness of the Foxfire Rangers themselves), whose voiceover guides the story, are the slightly more mature and reasonable members, and Legs (Adamson), the guiding force of the gang, is butch and aggressive—a far cry from Jolie’s interpretation in the earlier film.

The ancillary characters are just as two-dimensional. The most irritatingly out-of-place is Father Theriault (Reineke), a scraggly-bearded old man with a thick Canadian accent who addresses the camera about everything from socialism to the zeitgeist to happiness in totally unnecessary nonnarrative inserts that come out of nowhere. Mr. Kellogg (Roberts), father of Legs’s friend Marianne (Hope), is the archetype of the rich, well-connected corporate head who firmly believes in churchgoing, the ill effects of “welfare cripples,” and some variant of Ayn Randian ideology.

He proselytises to Legs, who has let her pals know she doesn’t believe in God and immortality, but even though he pays a high price for his position when the girls kidnap him, he is the innocent victim, Legs a crazy jungle-based revolutionary-to-be. Blind faith rules the day; secularism is but a dead-end.

Early in the film, these girls, who barely knew each other before, bond together to ward off annoying young guys and older male leeches. They wear identical tattoos and enjoy pranks, but light violence, such as beating up harassers, turns ugly when the more attractive girls pick up johns to rob and, at Legs’s urging, begin to store guns at an old farm where they have regrouped, disagreeing on almost everything, after several members serve out their sentences in reform school. It is only a matter of time before tragedy ensues.

Production companies: Haut et Court, The Film Farm

International sales: Memento Films International, www.memento-films.com

Producers: Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal, Barbara Letellier, Simone Urdl, Jennifer Weiss

Screenplay: Robin Campillo, Laurent Cantet

Cinematography: Pierre Milon

Production designer: Franckie Diago

Editor: Robin Campillo

Music: Timber Timbre

Main cast: Raven Adamson, Katie Coseni, Madeleine Bisson, Claire Mazerolle, Rachael Nyhuus, Tamara Hope, Rick Roberts, Gary Reineke