Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. Today Nick Hanover revisits Darren Stein’s underappreciated 1999 flop Jawbreaker, which he argues was a far more representative teen film experience than its more successful peers and successors.
“I killed the teen dream. Deal with it.”
Until I rewatched it recently, I never had any idea Jawbreaker was a commercial and critical failure in its time. In my high school circle, Jawbreaker was more than a film, it was a bible of sorts, giving us verse to quote, rules to follow and fashion to abide by. Heathers was for the previous generation, Clueless was too optimistic, Mean Girls wouldn’t come until later, so Jawbreaker was all ours in its technicolor cynicism and flexible sexuality, an acidic attack on the teen thrillers and makeover dramas then ruling theaters. So in retrospect, of course it was a flop.
Like But I’m a Cheerleader, its more obviously queer sister film from the same year, Jawbreaker pulls from the color palette and narrative DNA of the heyday of melodramas but makes the seedy underbelly of those movies explicit. But where But I’m a Cheerleader’s intent is to apply those film’s often sinister romanticization of suburban normalcy to the world of gay conversion camps, Jawbreaker reconfigures the inherent misogyny of melodramas as a satire of their worst nightmares of female ambition. Jawbreaker exaggerates the aspects of femininity that most intimidate society to the point of cartoonishness, making its central characters simultaneously empowering and terrifying.
At the center of all this is Rose McGowan’s iconic performance as Courtney Shayne, the ruthless leader of a fashionable high school clique that serves as the link between the eponymous girl gangs of Heathers and Mean Girls. Balancing out Courtney’s viciousness is Liz (Charlotte Ayanna), “the teen dream,” a queen bee worshipped and beloved by all, popular and unpopular alike. Director Darren Stein frames these two as necessary ends of a spectrum of high school elite, Courtney the fashion enforcer instilling terror in her peers, Liz the softening force that they aspire to get close to. Naturally, it’s when that balance gets disrupted that everything goes to hell.
Unlike other teen films of the same era, Jawbreaker doesn’t disrupt the balance with a meet cute or a questionable bet or some other basically harmless situation. Instead, the inciting incident is the grotesque death of Liz, who asphyxiates on a jawbreaker Courtney used to gag her when the girls “kidnap” Liz as part of a birthday prank. This in turn sets up conflict between Courtney and her second-in-command Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) over what to do about the fact that they “accidentally” killed their best friend (the film never directly confronts this, but you could argue Courtney meant to kill Liz all along). Julie, who talks about her love and admiration for Liz in the opening voice over, quite reasonably feels they should tell the police about the accident, but Courtney takes what she honestly believes is the most rational and practical approach: cover it up and find someone to fill Liz’s vacancy.
As monstrous as Courtney’s form of rationality is, Jawbreaker avoids making her a deranged mess. Courtney isn’t a moustache twirling villain but an apex predator, hellbent on maintaining her reputation and conquering anyone who stands in the way of her success. Julie isn’t exacly meek herself but she’s far more malleable, and the film criticizes her for her inaction as much as it criticizes Courtney for her ruthless action; in the end she only takes down Courtney because Courtney seems to be on the verge of taking at least one other victim, albeit less fatally.
The writing and visuals of Jawbreaker are ludricrously sharp but the key to its acidicity is McGowan’s ability to make Courtney’s actions seem natural and explainable. Rose Macgowan was keenly aware of how important that balance would be to the success of the film, and she told Dazed on the film’s 15th anniversary that she based her iconic performance as Courtney Shayne on Gene Tierney’s similarly hyperrational character in the early technicolor melodrama Leave Her to Heaven:
“She pushes her stepson who is in a wheelchair off a cliff. And when the husband is all, ‘But why? Why did you do it?’ ‘But darling, we needed more time together.’ It was logic-based. So my only approach to Courtney was she would probably pass a lie detector, it makes complete sense in her head, ‘And there’s not really a big deal and I don’t really understand what the fuss is about.'”
Where Courtney’s plan starts to fall apart is in her attempt to turn the nerdy Fern Mayo (Judy Greer) into Liz’s replacement after Fern stumbles upon the group covering up Liz’s death. Believing she can make Fern more like her than Liz, Courtney tries to transform Fern into “Vylette,” a hot new student. The transformation is intended to be as much a philosophical makeover as an aesthetic one, so Fern not only gains vivid blonde hair and a wardrobe primarily consisting of pepto bismol hues, she’s also encouraged to be a queen bee, with the b standing for bitch, a term she plasters all over her clothes and even her car.
The way Courtney and Fern both underestimate each other to dangerous effect gives the film the bulk of its second half thrills, allowing McGowan and Greer to play off each other with feverish intensity. There’s also an erotic undercurrent to their interactions that’s lacking in most of the films of this era of teen films (outside of perhaps The Craft), since it’s heavily implied that Fern is bisexual and was in love with Liz. Not coincidentally, Courtney starts to lose control over Fern the more she attempts to force Fern to seduce the school’s theatre star, who happens to be somewhat secretly dating Julie, even though Courtney herself admits her taste in lovers leans towards the androgynous, particularly if Bowie-level cheekbones are involved (and at one point she makes a fuck buddy deep throat a popsicle!).
As extreme as Jawbreaker can be, the organic eroticism and fluidity of the film is likely why it has started to click with modern audiences more than it did in its contemporary era (the film not only didn’t make back its $3.5 million budget, it has a 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Julie might be the moral center of the film but she’s the least interesting or remarkable character, a “normal” person caught in a whirlwind of crazy. Teens are more likely to see parts of themselves in Courtney and Fern, whether it’s the former’s fierce libido and how she covers that up by pretending her friends are sex-crazed or the latter’s curious exploration of confused feelings about a “friend” she mostly only interacts with from afar.
Of course, that doesn’t make up for some of the heinous sex politics of the film, with Courtney’s plan to cover up Liz’s death by seducing a strange man (played by real life strange man Marilyn Manson, no less) and fucking him on Liz’s bed in order to leave behind fluids to help bolster a theory that he raped and accidentally strangled Liz standing out as the worst offender. Even Pam Grier’s detective character gets in on the slut shaming, telling Fern and Julie that Liz “wasn’t as innocent as we thought” when she informs them the police have arrested Manson for allegedly raping and killing their friend. There’s also the numerous instances of body shaming Carol Kane’s teacher character inflicts on students, but those scenes are at least presented as purposefully flawed. On the more complicated end, there’s also the aforementioned popsicle scene, which on one hand is like an oral equivalent of pegging, but on the other hand involves some gay panic dialogue (though Stein himself is gay, so this almost certainly falls into the conscious commentary camp).
But in 1999, and to a lesser extent still today, there were so few works that looked and sounded like Jawbreaker that its flaws were relatively easy to overlook. Instead it was more fun to embrace the flamboyant absurdity and hormonal mayhem of it all, accepting it as a killer of a teen dream none of us could ever fit into anyway. And in the end, maybe that’s why even as Courtney is punished for her monstrosity, it feels like the film still asks you to feel sorry for her, forcing you to understand why, when presented with a bland, anonymous kind of perfection like Liz, all she could do was destroy it and try to offer a more exciting alternative. Who wouldn’t understand that impulse?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover