Released in 800 theatres with minimal marketing, writer/director Darren Stein’s satirical black comedy Jawbreaker made its debut on Feb 19, 1999. Apparently, Columbia/Tri-Star never intended for the film to become a big theatrical success; the goal was to conquer the home video market. In this capacity, the plan succeeded: the $3.5M film brought in $3.1M, then went on to become a smash hit on the rental circuit. 20 years later, the film is a cult classic (particularly among gays and girls), celebrated as a canonical piece of teen pop culture history and acting as the 90s stepping stone between 1988’s Heathers and 2004’s Mean Girls.
Stein’s film rifts on Heathers’ basic premise by using the accidental murder of the most popular girl in high school as a launchpad to dissect the shark-infested waters of teen popularity. Jawbreaker opens on a birthday prank gone wrong: HS sweetheart Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayanna)’s fake home invasion ends in death when the titular jawbreaker gets lodged in her throat and she asphyxiates in the trunk of her friends’ car.
Immediately sociopathic queen bee Courtney (Rose McGowan), dim-witted follower Marcie (Julie Benz) and bland Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) come to a crossroads about how to proceed. Courtney and Marcie pressure Julie into covering the murder up, and eventually Courtney frames a lecherous stranger (Marilyn Manson) and makes over Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), the only witness to the crime, in order to buy her silence. From this point on, the clique dissolves into all-out warfare, all waged in killer clothes, bitchy one-liners and a shocking exposé of Courtney’s shameful acts that unfurls at – where else? – the prom.
Jawbreaker stars a cacophony of famous actresses coming off well-known hits (post-Scream McGowan, post-Urban Legends Gayheart, and post-Buffy The Vampire Slayer Benz) and features, in one of her earliest roles, what should have been a star-making performance by Greer. While the film falls firmly into teen film / black comedy territory, the gaggle of genre vets in supporting roles, including Carrie’s PJ Soles and William Katt, When A Stranger Calls’ Carol Kane and Foxy Brown herself, Pam Grier, makes this a fun watch for horror fans.
Aside from the litany of famous faces, there are two other reasons why the film has developed such a devoted fan base since its release two decades ago: the iconic costumes and Stein’s gleefully acerbic script.
Vikki Barrett, whose credits include the similarly memorable wardrobe from Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, was responsible for crafting the distinctive outfits for Jawbreaker’s teen dream team. Barrett worked closely with the four lead actresses to craft distinctive looks for each girl and the attention to detail pays off (particularly for Courtney and Fern/Vylette). The costumes are exceedingly stylized and adult, a mix of high fashion and light bondage wear (many of them look like leather or latex, but are actually shiny lycra); Barrett aimed to deliver a distinctive cross between 50s and 80s aesthetics, modelling the outfits in part on the candy colours found in the chalky treat for which the film is named.
Of course, Jawbreaker’s distinctive fashion lewks would only carry it in the public consciousness for so long without a script full of bitchy jabs, sexual come-ons and witty rejoinders. In 1999, teen films were a dime-a-dozen, but few feature the kind of fragmented sentences or bullet-fire staccato rhythm of Stein’s script. In two memorable exchanges, Courtney and Marcie give plasticized doppelganger Vylette the lay of the land, using food and then later nail polish as stand-ins to understand the high school landscape.
Courtney’s one-liners, in particular, are iconic: McGowan’s delivery of bon-mots like “Now get in there and strut your shit like everything is peachy fucking keen” and “It’s not like we kill people…on purpose” elevate the material into something between pure art and high camp. It’s the perfect marriage of actress and material and McGowan has never been better.
The film itself isn’t entirely without fault. Despite employing nearly every visual trick in the book (including zany sound effects and split screens), the film’s energy lags heading into the third act, particularly when do-gooder Julie and her new boyfriend Zack (Chad Christ) take up more screen time. And no, the rape/frame job subplot, involving McGowan’s then-boyfriend Manson, literally doesn’t make any sense. There’s also some antiquated LGBTQ stereotypes, which aren’t unusual from films of this period, but are odd considering Stein is a very publicly gay director who also includes an iconic homoerotic scene featuring hunky Dane (Ethan Erickson) fellating a popsicle.
Still, between the costuming, the cast and the film’s distinctive flair in comparison to say, studio stablemate Can’t Hardly Wait (a lovely, but unassuming entry in the teen film canon), Jawbreaker remains a marvelous time capsule film. Mention the film and fans will reference the opening credits set to Veruca Salt’s “Volcano Girls”, Fern’s Beetlejuice meets Frankenstein make-over montage, Courtney’s Carrie-esque dolly-tracking prom meltdown and, above all else, the girls’ slow-motion walk down the school hallway to Imperial Teen’s “Yoo Hoo” (which this Broadly oral history piece notes Mean Girls blatantly lifts, much to Stein’s chagrin).
Twenty years later, Jawbreaker, the dark little teen film that could, persists because it is unlike anything else from the late 90s teen era (save perhaps Cruel Intentions).
In the immortal words of the cruelest girls in high school: Learn It. Live It. Love It.