Film #64: Jawbreaker (1999)

film 64 jawbreaker

Rating: 3/5

“Ok, reality check, Liz is in the trunk of this car. And she is dead. That is a sad, fucked up thing, but you are going to walk into that school and strut your shit down the hallway like everything is peachy fucking keen.”

Written and directed by Darren Stein, Jawbreaker is the film Mean Girls would be if it were truly mean. It’s a sharp, biting movie, a fast-paced black comedy with a delightfully 90’s female-centric grunge-punk soundtrack. Frequently compared to Heathers, it is perhaps too caustic to have ever enjoyed a wide audience – it barely recouped its money on release – but, as a fan of high school movies, I remembered it reasonably fondly from my youth and wasn’t disappointed on second viewing.

Rose McGowan stars as Courtney who, along with her friends Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Liz (Charlotte Ayanna), rules the school. Everything begins to crumble when Liz, the one who “ruled with kindness”, accidentally meets her demise following a birthday prank gone wrong. Desperate to avoid trouble, the remaining three queen bees, with Courtney at the helm, plan to cover up the death. A twisted, seedy tale of perversion and deviancy is devised to explain the cause of death – a giant jawbreaker sweet lodged in the throat of the lovely Liz. Enter gawky, geeky nobody Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) to spoil the plans; Fern’s adoration for Liz – who once helped her pick up some dropped books – veers significantly into girl-crush territory, but her silence is quickly bought with promises of popularity and a makeover.

Yes, Jawbreaker is that kind of movie – the kind with almost no mention of parents, where the prettiest girls not only rule the corridors but are completely capable of inventing a new classmate. Fern becomes Violette, a creation of Courtney’s (as Courtney likes to remind her) who instantly grabs the attention of everyone in school. Apparently either no one has noticed, or cares, about Fern’s sudden disappearance. Of course, realism is not particularly relevant in Stein’s film; the girls take centre stage. It’s not, however, without its surprises – it may appear that hapless Fern, whose voice-over introduces the movie, will nonetheless retain our sympathy, but her sudden fame creates a monster, and the “good” girl is someone else altogether.

McGowan is an excellent choice to play Courtney – there is never any doubt as to the monstrous bitch within, and Courtney is grade-A sociopath. She’s a truly nasty piece of work; as Fern/Violette remarks, “She’s so evil, and she’s still in high school!” There are no limits to what Courtney will do to stay out of jail and never really shows any sign of remorse for her actions; there is no redemption here. Her actions, however, do enable one of the most entertainingly sleazy cameos – shock rocker Marilyn Manson (McGowan’s squeeze at the time) pops up as her chosen patsy, complete with receding hairline and 70s porno moustache.

Jawbreaker races along, somewhat fetishising its four stars: there are several obligatory slow-motion shots of the girls striding down their school corridors in their high heels and provocative outfits; their morning makeup ritual is shown in extreme close-up. The male cast members feature largely for eye candy – they are dominated (quite literally in some cases) by females, from McGowan with her cult appeal right down to the mostly pointless inclusion of Pam Grier (Jackie Brown) as hardened Detective Vera Cruz – I kept expecting some lesbian action, but it never came. Throughout the film, however, there message is always blindingly obvious: these females rule the roost.

Although the plot is wafer thin, and the concluding prom showdown inevitable, Jawbreaker panders to the high school clichés with a knowing respect, playing with the conventions with gleeful, spiteful abandon at times but never forgetting them. Thanks to some snappy editing it rushes along, not allowing much time to contemplate on the stupidity of the whole thing; it’s alternately over acted and flat at times (any scenes that require McGowan to play anything other than predatory or passive-aggressive reveal the limitations of her performance), but it’s not trying to be an Oscar winner. Glorifying bitchiness, revelling in camp, caustic comedy, Jawbreaker is no work of art, but it’s an entertaining departure from the 12A-rated meanness of most high school movies.