A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jawbreaker is a very dark 1999 comedy about the aftermath of the accidental murder of a popular girl by another popular girl. The movie overall is a cynical comment on popularity, status, and the ephemeral nature of friendship in high school. The profanity is far above and beyond the normal range of cursing in most movies -- perhaps Goodfellas is the only movie to use "f--k" with greater frequency, only instead of it being used by Mafioso, it's used by snotty and privileged (mostly) white girls. There are no redeeming characters; everyone in the entire high school plays the popularity clique game, and no one even thinks to question it. A girl is seemingly kidnapped by three masked attackers out of her bedroom, then gagged with a jawbreaker before having her mouth taped shut; she's killed by her friends who have done it as a birthday prank. Frequent sex talk among teens. A girl forces her boyfriend to suck on a popsicle as if it's a penis. A girl seduces an older man and has sex with him with the intent of framing him for murder. Caustic and profoundly negative humor drives the movie -- think of it as the nihilistic wicked stepsister of Heathers and Mean Girls. This nihilism can be downright disturbing, cruel, and not all that funny -- such as a joke set up to make fun of anorexic girls. And yet, despite being critically panned and a commercial failure upon its initial release, the movie's distinctive style, fashion sense, and off-the-charts exaggeration of adolescent drama has given it a loyal cult following.
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What's the story?
JAWBREAKER begins the morning of the 17th birthday of universally beloved popular girl Liz Purr. Her three best friends -- Courtney (Rose McGowan), Marcie (Julie Benz), and Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) -- have decided to surprise her. Their surprise consists of dressing up like masked assailants, kidnapping her, and gagging her mouth shut with a jawbreaker, taping her mouth, then throwing her in the trunk of their car. When they open the trunk upon arrival at Liz's favorite diner, they discover that she choked to death from the jawbreaker forced into her mouth by Courtney. Unwilling to report the death to the police and unsure of what else to do, they decide to take Liz back to her room and place her in her bed so that it looks like she has been raped. Later, an awkward unpopular girl named Fern (Judy Greer) has been asked by the principal of Reagan High (Carol Kane) to take Liz's homework to her, since Liz is presumed sick with the flu after Courtney calls in posing as Liz's mother. Upon letting herself into Liz's house, she discovers Liz's dead body, and the three friends gathered around it. Fern tries to flee the scene, but she's caught, and Courtney tells Fern that in exchange for her silence on what she witnessed, Courtney will turn her into a popular girl as beloved as Courtney, Marcie, and Julie. Courtney transforms the awkward Fern into an uber-stylish glamour girl with dyed blonde hair named "Vylette." As Vylette's popularity soars, Julie's plummets, as she is crushed with the guilt of Liz's death and suffers Courtney's wrath as a result. Julie begins dating a drama club student named Zack, and the two observe Courtney's remorseless lying about how Liz died and the great lengths to which she goes to frame an innocent man for the murder. After Vylette is sent crashing back to nerd-Earth as Fern when Courtney is threatened by Vylette's near overtaking of Courtney's Most Popular crown, it's up to Julie, Fern, and Zack to find a way to stop Courtney, and to show the entire school that Courtney is both a murderer and a completely horrible human being all around.
Is it any good?
This is the nihilistic stepsister of Heathers and Mean Girls. Sadly, it doesn't say anything much different than the former (merely sacrificing timeless satire for smug cynicism), and the quality of the writing isn't at the level of the latter. A commercial dud that was critically panned upon its initial release, Jawbreaker has emerged as a cult favorite. Perhaps the positives of the movie -- the fashion sense, the iconic scene of the four popular girls strutting down the high school hallway in slow motion, The Donnas rocking the prom, the '90s sensibility permeating it, and the sheer evil Rose McGowan brings to her truly horrible character -- deserve to be appreciated decades later. And yet, there's so much that's slapdash and lazy, smug and glib, that an argument could also be made that it belongs in the trash heap of '90s history alongside Right Said Fred and Blockbuster Video.
The ending is deeply unsatisfying. For a movie with so much larger-than-life exaggeration, a conveniently arrived MacGuffin and a tame, questionable revenge plot is a deflating letdown. It's a laziness that reveals the cracks in the rest of the movie. The dark comedy is at everyone's expense, even those who don't deserve it. Simply making a joke at the expense of anorexics, for instance, doesn't make it "dark comedy," especially if it isn't funny and just comes across as pointlessly mean. This kind of mean-spiritedness dilutes the comedy that might drive the point of the movie, assuming there's one beyond "no one really has friends in high school and everyone is a willing participant in the caste system of American adolescence." And having teen characters throw as many F-bombs as the middle-aged Mafioso in Goodfellas might be "edgy" to some, but the word eventually loses its humor and shock value, and comes across as desperate.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about dark comedies like Jawbreaker. What are some of the elements that make a comedy "dark"?
This movie shows characters making jokes at the expense of lesbians, as well as anorexics. Is the intent to make fun of the characters who are this callous, or the targets of their ire, or is it hard to tell?
What are some of the ways that the lead antagonist, played by Rose McGowan, inspires hatred and dislike in the audience, to the point where viewers can't help but root against her?
- In theaters: February 19, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: December 7, 2010
- Cast: Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Julie Benz
- Director: Darren Stein
- Studio: Image Entertainment
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: History
- Run time: 87 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: Sexuality, language and violence, all involving teens.
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