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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Jawbreaker (1999)
2 Stars

Directed by Darren Stein
Cast: Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Judy Greer, Julie Benz, Chad Christ, Carol Kane, Pam Grier, Ethan Erickson, Charlotte Roldan, Tatyana Ali, P.J. Soles, William Katt.
1999 – 86 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for profanity, sexual situations, and a gruesome depiction of a dead body).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 23, 1999.

"Jawbreaker," Darren Stein's auspicious sophomore directing effort (his debut feature, "Sparklers," is due out later this spring), is a wicked and darkly comic tale of accidental murder and then (partial) redemption. To get the comparison out of the way, yes, "Jawbreaker" owes quite a bit to the 1989 high school black comedy, "Heathers," and I can't really imagine this film being made if that one didn't already exist. I will also admit that "Heathers," on the whole, is a marginally superior film, because its themes and "message" were presented in a more fashionable and effective way, but "Jawbreaker" is certainly more visually stylish.

"Jawbreaker" starts off with a brief slow-motion shot of the "Fearsome Four," four beautiful and wildly popular young women, walking down a high school hallway as they are introduced, played appropriately to the rock song, "Yoo Hoo," by Imperial Teen. There's the leader and ice queen, Courtney (Rose McGowan), the ditzy follower, Marcie (Julie Benz), the slightly reluctant Julie (Rebecca Gayheart), and the sweet Liz Purr (Charlotte Roldan), who is kind to everyone, an "angel," if you will. Immediately afterwards, Courtney, Marcie, and Julie, garbed in masks, set out to play a birthday prank on Liz by tying her up, gagging her by stuffing a large jawbreaker into her mouth, and throwing her in the trunk of their car. While stopping for breakfast at a cafe, they are shocked to discover that poor Liz has accidentally swallowed and asphyxiated on the jawbreaker. Desperate to cover everything up, Courtney, the cool cat (or lion), grasps a plan: carry Liz back up to her bedroom and stage what will appear to look like a violent and kinky rape by an unknown assailant. Unfortunately, while still at Liz's house, the three are paid an unwelcome visit by the geeky and unattractive, but kind-hearted Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), who has come to drop off Liz's homework assignments. Thinking quick, Courtney proposes an offer Fern can't refuse: she will elect Fern into their elite clique, give her a make-over, and turn her into "Vylette." But as "Vylette" grows more and more corrupt and bitchy, Julie, who has had a guilty conscience the whole time, decides she wants out of the group, grabbing a romantic, suave new boyfriend (Chad Christ) who is in the drama club, and begins to wrestle with what she should do: tell the truth about Courtney, or risk getting into trouble herself since she was, after all, an accomplice to the crime.

Although "Jawbreaker" may bill itself as a dark comedy, and there are a few small laughs, I found the film to be a little bit more serious, particularly in dealing with the surprisingly complex (for this type of film, anyway) character of Julie, played by Rebecca Gayheart in the film's best performance, as a young woman who finds herself ultimately shunned by her so-called "friends" when she begins to show normal human emotions, such as guilt and tenderness. Equipped with the second best character in the picture, and the other one that goes through several physical and emotional changes, is that of Fern, played by Judy Greer. Fern is a good-natured person in her soul, but can't helped but practically be brainwashed by the bitchy, heartless Courtney, who often reminds her that she "made her." There is a warm, touching scene between the two early on when Julie calls up "Vylette" and brings up an old, fond childhood memory of how they were friends in the 4th grade and went to each other's slumber parties. "It's funny how time changes people," says Julie. "Time doesn't change people," replies Fern. "People change people."

In the other central roles, Rose McGowan is perfectly cast as the unredeemable Courtney who (slight spoiler alert ahead) gets her just desserts in the satisfying climax at the prom, a la "Carrie," cleverly set to the tune of "Young at Heart," by Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Julie Benz really doesn't make much of an impression at all as Marcie, and also seemingly doesn't play a very important role in the goings-on. In the supporting roles, Chad Christ, as Zach, Julie's new boyfriend, is the splitting image of Ethan Hawke, right down to the whiskers on his chin; Pam Grier is admittedly wasted as the detective on the case (this is certainly not a step up from her meaty role in 1997's "Jackie Brown); and Carol Kane is fetching as always, but underused, as the school principal, Mrs. Sherwood. Making cameos are Marilyn Manson (::gasp!:: without makeup!) as a man Courtney picks up in a bar, while P.J. Soles and William Katt (who both starred, coincidentally enough, in "Carrie") make virtual walk-ons as Liz's parents who return from a trip to find their daughter dead.

"Jawbreaker" has one highly strong asset, and that is the underlying subject of redemption, both of Julie and Fern, and I appreciated that they were given the time to be developed so that I understood exactly what each one was going through. In high school, teenagers really do hang out with a certain type of clique or group, as cliched as it may sound, and I am sure some have been swayed and peer pressured into being someone that they truly aren't. That, in my opinion, is what "Jawbreaker" is all about. I hasten to add, however, that this same exact theme was grudgingly already explored in a similar manner in "Heathers," and so "Jawbreaker" doesn't necessarily have anything fresh to say. Both films followed the same exact pattern, and pretty much the same story, right down to the murder aspect and clique of four popular girls. Although not at all up to the former's level, "Jawbreaker" is still an entertaining and smart film, and in a time when something as banal as "She's All That" is also playing in theaters, "Jawbreaker" is something of a slight godsend.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman