Jawbreaker (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For the first time in more than a decade, teen films are all the rage. Stars from TV shows like "Dawson's Creek" and "Party of Five" are crossing over to the big screen in droves, resulting in such lackluster fare as Can't Hardly Wait and She's All That. With a built-in audience of millions who hang out at multiplexes every Friday and Saturday night, these movies, despite being lackluster and underwritten, are guaranteed money-makers. They all use similar formulas - variations on the themes that John Hughes toyed with in the '80s. Every once in a while, however, a teen film comes along with a dark streak and something of an edge. In 1989, it was Heathers. Now, in 1999, it's Jawbreaker.

That's not to say that Jawbreaker is in the same league as Heathers, because it's not. Michael Lehmann's bleak, funny look at high school popularity was a one-of-a-kind. Jawbreaker borrows liberally from it, and not always to good effect, but the script isn't as tight and the satire isn't as biting. Still, compared to most of the recent films I've had to endure about teen angst and prom tribulations, Jawbreaker is at least palatable (and occasionally even clever).

Courtney (Rose McGowan), Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Liz (Charlotte Roldan) are the Popularity Quartet of Reagan High. They're the kind of girls that "normal" students don't talk to without a written invitation. They intimidate by a combination of cold looks, lofty disinterest, and sex appeal. Of the four, only Liz is genuinely liked by her fellow high schoolers; Courtney (the nasty one), Julie (the uncertain one), and Marcie (the airhead) command respect through fear. What begins as a prank for these friends ends up in tragedy. On Liz's 17th birthday, the other three decide to stage a mock kidnapping. So they sneak into her room in the morning, tie her up, stick a jawbreaker and a gag in her mouth, then take her outside and throw her in a car trunk. Later, when they decide to free Liz, they discover that she's dead, having choked on the jawbreaker. Courtney, always in control of the situation, decides that going to the police is not an option. Instead, they'll take the body back to Liz's house and set things up to make it look like she was strangled during a bout of kinky sex. Unfortunately, their plan isn't foolproof, and there is a witness.

Jawbreaker, the directorial debut of Darren Stein, loses energy as it progresses. The first half-hour is engrossing, the second half-hour is uneven, and the third half-hour is barely adequate. Along the way, Stein (who also wrote the screenplay) takes some knowing swipes at the culture of high school cliques, and what it means to be popular or unpopular. For some, having a social standing at school is irrelevant, but for others, it's all-important. Everything that Courtney, Julie, and Marcie do, including giving a nerd a makeover and letting her into their inner circle, is designed to protect their status.

The most interesting character is that nerd, Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), a social pariah who has the good (or bad, depending on your point-of-view) fortune of stumbling upon evidence that incriminates the surviving trio. To buy Fern's silence, Courtney overhauls her life, transforming her from a wallflower into a prom queen candidate. Fern's social ascent is contrasted with Julie's collapse. Overwhelmed by guilt about her part in Liz's death, Julie drops out of the popularity circle and, as a result, becomes the school-wide object of derision.

Stein has chosen a group of "in" actors to populate Jawbreaker. Rose McGowan, best known for wearing next-to-nothing at an MTV awards ceremony, is given ample latitude to chew on as much scenery as she wants to. The pale-skinned, raven-haired actress plays the part to the hilt, creating a cartoon bitch with no redeeming qualities. While no one matches McGowan's intensity, Judy Greer is capable, although not superlative, as the suddenly popular Fern. Julie Benz (from TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") does a reasonable job of creating an air of vapid haughtiness, but Rebecca Gayheart (Urban Legend) is bland. The adults are played by stars of the '70s. Pam Grier is a police detective. William Katt ("The Greatest American Hero") and P.J. Soles (Halloween) are Liz's parents. And Jeff Conaway (Grease) is Marcie's father. Finally, McGowan's boyfriend, Marilyn Manson, has a cameo as Courtney's sex partner.

Considering the constant references to teen movies of the '80s and '90s, it's reasonable to label Jawbreaker as derivative, even with its dark sense of humor. And, while the film offers more than a Heathers rehash, it never fully develops its own identity. After a kinetic beginning that promises something deliciously wicked, Stein's movie slides into cruise control and drifts all the way to the finish line, with only an occasional stylistic riff or vicious one-liner to liven things up. Like the candy from which it gets its name, Jawbreaker is fun at the start, but can turn into a chore to complete.

Jawbreaker (United States, 1999)

Director: Darren Stein
Cast: Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Julie Benz, Judy Greer, Chad Christ, Ethan Erickson, Charlotte Roldan, Pam Grier
Screenplay: Darren Stein
Cinematography: Amy Vincent
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1999-02-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1