Jawbreaker: Semi-Dark, Semi-Campy Satire, Starring Rose McGowan

More superficially stylish than Heathers, but not nearly as witty or engaging, Jawbreaker is a reworking of the 1989 movie, a semi-dark, semi-campy high-school satire, blending elements from Carrie, Nightmare on Elm Street, Clueless, and other classic school yarns.

The strongest dimensions of this self-conscious, centerless film are four sexy actresses parading in colorful costumes and Amy Vincent’s radiant lensing, which makes the picture seem more hip and cool than it is. The challenge faced by Sony release is to distinguish itself in a market currently glutted by youth fare and date movies. However, since the budget is extremely low (around $3 million), even moderate B.O., which is anticipated, should cover production and marketing costs and perhaps do even more.

In his sophomore effort, Darren Stein, whose feature debut Sparkler will be released by Strand in March, demonstrates a good eye for a distinctly visual storytelling. But more than anything else, Jawbreaker shows the impact of Hollywood movies on a youngster growing up in the San Fernando Valley: Stein’s movieish yarn is no more than a pastiche of John Hughes’ and other youth and horror flicks. Problem is, once premise is established, Stein has hard time spinning a smart, entertaining tale to engage the viewers for the duration of a feature-length movie.

As in Heathers, the four bitch-queen protagonists form the most powerful clique in a high school called Reagan High. Leader of the pack is Courtney Shayne (Rose McGowan), a bright, voluptuous girl who dominates her friends: Marcie Fox (Julie Benz) nicknamed Foxy, Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart) and Liz Purr (1993 Miss Teen USA, Charlotte Roldan). What draws the quartet together is their awareness of being the school’s most popular and most beautiful girls. A comic voice-over narration establishes that Liz is the most desirable girl, because she combines the rare qualities of beauty and sweetness.

In the first act, Courtney, Julie and Foxy conduct a wild birthday prank. With their faces masked, they invade Liz’s bedroom, stuff a jawbreaker into her mouth and kidnap her. Courtney snaps a couple of Polaroids of the victimized girl and all’s well and fun until she later opens the car’s trunk and realizes that Liz is dead. What begins as an innocent lark turns into an unanticipated tragedy, and rest of tale is devoted to the girls’ panicky attempts to cover up their involvement in Liz’s death. Adding some necessary complications are Fern Mayo (Greer), the class nerd, who stumbles in on the girls’ cover-up and is forced to join their league, and detective Vera Cruz (Pam Grier), who arrives to investigate the case.

Not much happens in the second–and weakest–reel, in which Julie suddenly turns conscientious and defects the group, while the unappealing Fern is totally transformed through make-up by Courtney into an attractive girl with a new identity and a new name, Vylette. Inspired by Carrie, the finale, in which Courtney gets her comeuppance at the prom, almost redeems the picture, which slouches considerably in the midsection.

Stein’s intent to make a dark Faustian tale of corruption and redemption is unsuccessful–his script is shallow and lacking in resourceful comic ideas. That said, Jawbreaker is not mindless: Familiar as they are, the notions of excessive conformity, the terror of peer pressure, the ostracization of outcasts are effectively illustrated with a giddy visual style.

This undernourished film functions more as a tribute than as a legit satire in its own right. Homage elements are reflected not only thematically, but also in the casting. The ensemble includes P.J. Soles and William Catt (Carrie), as the victim’s parents; Jeff Conaway (Grease) as Marcie’s father; Carol Kane (When a Stranger Calls) as the prim school teacher, and blaxploitation icon Grier playing a detective named Vera Cruz (a Gary Cooper Western).

Headed by a seductive McGowan, the entire female cast is appealing, but picture doesn’t do much for the boys, who’re mostly plot elements. With a touch of Pedro Almodovar’s wild color palette (credits and other sequences recall Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown) and a visual boldness that brings to mind Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Stein proves that he is a supreme stylist, acquitting himself more honorably as a director than a writer–Jawbreaker screams for a sharper script.

Even so, considering the small budget, and that it’s only a second effort, Jawbreaker provides some visual pleasures, and terrific soundtrack should boost pic’s commercial viability.

Vincent, who had luminously shot Eve’s Bayou, is rapidly becoming a major lenser, one who gives her pictures a distinctive look and feel. Dominant visual motif, which depicts the clique’s arrogant daily walk down the school’s corridor, is staged and shot as a gang preparing for a climactic shoot-out. Jawbreaker doesn’t provide much stimulation for the mind, but it’s a sensual experience overwhelming the eyes with gorgeous women in sexy outfits, occasionally exchanging catty barbs.