Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jawbreaker (1999)

Directed by Darren Stein
Starring Rose McGowan, Julie Benz, Rebecca Gayheart, Judy Greer
Rated R

"She's so evil...and she's only in high school!

It's a world much like your world, just a little more vicious. Four girls rule Reagan High: Courtney (Rose McGowan), a razor-chinned she-wolf sociopath; Foxy (Julie Benz), Courtney's beautiful-but-vacuous lapdog; Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), a furrow-browed nerd wrapped in the shell of a beauty queen; and Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayanna), the smartest, prettiest, nicest girl in town. This set-up seems to work pretty well for everybody, until the day of Liz's 18th birthday, when things all go to hell.

To celebrate Miss Purr's ascent into adulthood, her friends decide to stage a mock-kidnapping. They break into her room, blindfold her, gag her, tie her up, and then throw her into the trunk of Courtney's car. The plan is to eventually strip her down to her skivvies and then tie her to a flagpole in front of the school. This sounds like an awful way to celebrate your birthday. I'm glad I did not go to high school with Rose McGowan.

In order to keep Liz quiet during her abduction, Courtney shoves a jawbreaker in Liz's mouth. Somewhere along the way from her house to the diner parking lot where they decide to release her, the poor girl chokes to death on the giant candy. When they pop the trunk and discover this horrible turn of events, Courtney immediately goes into damage-control mode, concocting a background story that involves, among other unlikely scenarios, virginal Liz getting raped by a mustachioed Marilyn Manson.

Fearing jail, or worse - i.e. their social standing in the school - Julie and Foxy go along with the ruse. And it all might have gone their way, too, until mousy Fern (Judy Greer) is sent by principal Carol Kane to presumably out-sick Liz's house to deliver her homework for the evening. She stumbles onto the scheming girls while they attempt to smuggle their already-ripening dead friend back into her bedroom. In exchange for her silence, Courtney grants the fashion disaster entrance into their exclusive cool-club.

Fern quickly becomes the flashy "Vilette", and relishes her new life as a mega-popular hottie.

Their skins are saved, for the moment. But once hotshot detective Vera Cruz (Pam Grier) enters the picture, things begin to go awry. Julie unravels, escapes Courtney's clutches, and contemplates turning them all in. Worse yet, Vilette becomes an even bigger monster than the fiend who created her.

It all comes to a head, as most high school dramas do, at the prom. A hilariously teenage Donnas rock the joint, as Julie concocts the ultimate revenge.

Jawbreaker is a visually gorgeous film, full of neon-colored clothing and perfect-looking people. Sure, all the girls are much too old for high-school - Rebecca Gayheart was flirting with 30 when she shot the film- but they wear their high-school hellcat costumes brilliantly. Director Darren Stein is clearly a film scholar, since he tosses in bucketfuls of cinematic references along the way. Carrie (1976) is not only mentioned or visually referenced more than once, but both of the actors who played Liz Purr's parents - William Katt and PJ Soles - were in the original Carrie. At one point, Vilette auditions for the school's production of Grease - later on, she shows up at school wearing a pink version of Olivia Newton John's infamous black leather outfit from Grease's climax. Jeff Conaway, who starred in the 1978 film, also makes an appearance as Foxy's put-upon dad. The slo-mo horror movie climax, wherein the monstrous Courtney finally gets her comeuppance, recalls both Carrie and the Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Some of the final shots of Courtney's downfall actually match Elsa Lanchester's resurrected freakout perfectly.

Alas, all of Stein's careful work in Jawbreaker did little too attract teenage audiences. It flopped in the box office, making back less than its meager $3 million dollar budget, and it was soon eclipsed by box office smash American Pie, a more traditional take on the classic teen sex comedy released six months later. American Pie spawned seven-and-counting sequels; Jawbreaker has yet to even develop the cult following it richly deserves.

Although it's all but forgotten a decade later, Jawbreaker still holds up as one of the most gleefully cynical high school movies ever made. A pitch black comedy that positively drips with venom in every scene, the film cemented Rose McGowan's public persona as the perhaps the meanest girl that ever lived and launched Judy Greer's considerable career as an in-demand character actor. The music is great, the visuals are consistently eye-popping, the dialogue is suitably outrageous, and there are clever film-references sprinkled throughout. It all adds up to a gooey hunk of perverse, mean-spirited fun. If you hated high school, you're bound to love Jawbreaker.

- Ken McIntyre


  1. This was a great film. It had a really entertaining cast, and just enough style to set itself apart. You really hit the nail on the head calling it visually gorgeous. Jawbreaker seems like the perfect crossbreeding of the post-Pulp Fiction film and the music video style.

  2. Hi TL!
    Glad you agree! Not many people do.
    If you get the chance, check out the podcast this weekend, we're covering Jawbreaker. Should be a fun discussion!



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