"Foxes," now at area theaters, is a flashier exercise in fashionable prurience than the recent "Little Darlings." Although their film resolves itself into a lurid shambles, screenwriter Gerald Ayres and director Adrian Lyne demonstrate a certain flair for foxy exploitation.
After listening to tantalizing stories about North Hollywood High, where his teen-age daughter was enrolled at the time, Ayres got the exploitable brainstorm of updating "Rebel Without a Cause." The forlorn little menage once formed among sweethearts James Dean and Natalie Wood and mascot Sal Mineo has been reconstituted as a quartet of high-school girls -- alienated from their families, precociously wised-up about sex, but still all too vulnerable.
Contrasting extremes of teen modernity are embodied by Jodie Foster as Jeanie, arbitrarily wise beyond her years and the implicit Mrs. Miniver of the gang, and Cherie Currie as Annie, a platinum blond doll obviously headed for premature oblivion and the implicit Norma Jean of the gang. The remaining constituency is represented in less decisive cliches by Kandice Stroh as Deirdre, a pretentious and incorrigible flirt, and Marilyn Kagan as Madge, a sweet, owlish innocent who craves early love and marriage.
The actresses themselves are amusingly distinctive and appealing. All of them have the looks and ability to go much further than this shallowly provocative material can take them. As a matter of fact, Deirdre and Madge seem to drop by the wayside as the exposition hurtles along. Lacking the episodic finesse and affectionate viewpoint of a comedy of adolescence like "American Graffiti," "Foxes" banks on Annie's victimization to cover all inadequacies. Without her expedient tragedy, Ayres and Lyne would be playing an empty melodramatic hand.
Although the plot seems to reaffirm traditional fears -- if you burn the candle at both ends, you're likely to go up in flames -- the only decent impulse discernible behind this otherwise tawdry picture is protectively paternal.
Ayres has one of the characters say, "The trouble with L. A. is everyone is trying to act so supercool and be into their own space. No one can feel the pain in anything anymore." The trouble with his script is that it doesn't seem up to the task of depicting painful cautionary truths in an updated setting, either. Ayres and Lyne are much more adept at exploiting the L. A. locations ominously or seductively.
The potentially liberating aspect of the script in this milieu is the suggestion that the kids, given control of their lives by indifferent or absentee parents, are incluned to make an irresponsible mess of things. The grownups are deployed like walk-on gargoyles. They keep popping up at crucial junctures and acting so neurotic or intimidating that one is obliged to conclude that the poor kids never stood a chance.
For example, Annie appears to be courting disaster by habitually conking out on drugs and running with a mean crowd, but she's got a mad-dog father on the police force and a mother who sits staring at the wall with a hound of Baskerville at her side. In the cheapest cop-out of the script, Annie hitches a ride with an apparently respectable couple instantly revealed to be a marital Jekyll and Hyde; upper-middle-class child molesters out for a dirty cruise.
Jeanie's incongruous stability is one of the more compelling mysteries of recent screenwriting. It might have been helpful if Ayres had expanded on sadder-but-wiser relections like the following, entrusted to Jeanie in an early sequence: "I slept with a couple of guys in the ninth grade because it was new, but I'm not a total dingbat like Deirdre." Or like her own out-to-lunch mother Mary, played by Sally Kellerman at her most relentlessly melancholy.
Kellerman is given to hysterically embarrassing outbursts. "I don't like your friends" she rages."Maybe the whole bunch of you are sick . . . I don't know who you are! You're short 40-year-olds! I wish to God I could punish you . . . Just because they fit you to a diaphragm is no reason you're a woman . . . You're too beautiful, all of you. You make me hate my hips!"
Loaded words all right, but when the verbal tempest subsides, one doesn't feel as if anything has been clarified.
"Foxes" has a dreamy look, dominated by exquisitely diffused, lemony California sunlight and neon-lit nightscapes, and the exposition is pregnant with false urgency. It's disco storytelling in the pattern of "Midnight Express," an earlier hit from the same producer (David Puttnam) and production company (Casablanca).
But to the extent that meanings emerge from the brazen, choppy parable, they seem garbled or platitudinous. One comes away feeling rather sordid and helpless. That's the curse of Ayres' opportunistic, unfeeling dramatization. Even if you give him credit for some accurate observation and dialogue, you don't care.