Jawbreaker

There are four girls. One of them is having a birthday, so the other three kidnap her, stuff a jawbreaker in her mouth and tape it shut, stuff her in the back of their car, and drive off. Upon opening the trunk, they find out that she died, and that the jawbreaker found its way inside of her throat while they were driving. She is now dead, and they are responsible. Here is what happens at the start of Jawbreaker, a black comedy written and directed by Darren Stein.

These four girls were the most popular of all the high school students. They were feared, loved, and worshiped. The dead one, Liz (Charlotte Ayanna), was the only “nice” one of the bunch. The rest are all mean, in large part because of their leader, Alice (Rose McGowan), the queen bee of the school. She’s the one who takes the blame for Liz’s death, although because the other two were accomplices, they’re just as guilty. This is high school after all, so despite it being an accident, they decide that covering it up would be the best plan of attack.

Unfortunately, homework still needs to be done, even though Alice calls in sick for Liz that day. A shy student, one who fantasizes about being as popular as this gang of girls, is sent to deliver the homework to Liz’s house. She becomes a witness to the coverup, and is given a choice: Become one of them and keep her mouth shut, or tattle and remain a nobody. She chooses the former, presumably because “pretty girls in prison” is an overdone genre. And what we end up getting somehow isn’t.

A makeover later, and Fern (Judy Greer), now going by the name “Vylette” is a popular student. It’s here where much of our satire of the high school life comes in. There won’t be a whole lot that surprises you about Jawbreaker, but it is kind of funny and the points it makes are solid, if not terribly original. We get an inside look at the popular clique, and it’s from this perspective where we spend most of the film. One of the members drops out, and Vylette becomes more obnoxious than the rest of them, but this is a relatively formulaic affair.

Each of the main girls gets a distinct personality, which is helpful because some of them look similar. One of them is really mean, another isn’t terribly intelligent, one is regretful and turns “good,” while the last is just learning what true (high school) power is. It’s not exactly a clash of personalities — they’re all, save for the last one, subservient to Alice, at least for most of the film — but there are few similarities between them, which allows us to tell them apart.

Despite Jawbreaker taking place in a high school, this isn’t a film for children. It’s vulgar, profane, and wickedly dark; it’s aimed at adults, perhaps in a way to bring back the nostalgia of their high school years. It allows them to reminisce about when they were in school, and think about which group they were apart of — or which one they wanted to be. You know someone or many people who fit into one of these character types, and it can easily bring up memories, both pleasant and painful, about the high school years.

The plot is mostly vacant, and barely plays a part in the proceedings. Secondary characters come and go, change personality, and don’t even attempt to use their brain. The coverup that the girls use is to try to make it look like Liz was raped. Apparently no tests are done on her body, because that totally gets bought by everyone. A detective played by Pam Grier shows up and is initially a hard-line type of person, but soon finds herself easily persuaded by lies that make little to no sense when you look at them logically.

Jawbreaker is quite funny if you’re a fan of black comedy, and it definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome, playing for just under 90 minutes. By not trying to draw things out, Stein doesn’t have to lay back on the humor. He’s able to keep the jokes and situations coming, and never has to save the best material for later. Sure, it’s not as funny or as good as Heathers, from which it draws much inspiration, but it’s still funny in its own right and I know I laughed with relative frequency as it played.

One of the reasons to watch Jawbreaker is for Rose McGowan, who can chew the scenery — and her fellow actors — with the best of them. She takes the “bee” part of the “queen bee” title literally, having the “b” stand for something else. She is so intense, yet at the same time causal in her dialogue. The rest of the actors are fine, but cower beneath her in this film. Even Pam Grier can’t stand up to Ms. McGowan in this film, which might come as a surprise to anyone watching.

Jawbreaker isn’t a great film, but it is a funny dark comedy with an intense leading performance that will probably make you laugh for most of the time it plays. Plot and characters aren’t terribly important; it’s all about the social criticism and watching Rose McGowan chew through absolutely everyone with whom she shares the screen. It’s a film that’s a lot like its title: It can be absolutely worthwhile, but has the potential to be a waste of your time if it’s not your kind of thing.

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