Starring the 90s collective of Rebecca Gayheart as the sweet Julie (Scream 2, Urban Legends), Julie Benz as the ditzy Marcie Fox (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Judy Greer as the loser-turned-bombshell Fern/Vylette (The Wedding Planner, 13 Going on 30), and Rose McGowan as the venomous Courtney Shayne (Scream, Charmed), Jawbreaker follows the story of three popular high school girls who accidentally kill their best friend Elizabeth Purr on her seventeenth birthday. Having gagged her with a jawbreaker and thrown her in the trunk of their convertible for an ill-fated kidnapping prank, the girls are horrified when they open their trunk and find that she’s choked to death. Courtney hatches a cunning but horrifying plan to cover up their role in Liz’s death, while Julie, wracked with guilt and grief over what has happened to her best friend, distances herself from the group and tries to figure out how to reveal the truth.
Jawbreaker is a movie of deftly handled contrasts. Tonally, Darren Stein’s dark comedy strikes the perfect balance with its cotton candy coloring, aggressively fun ‘90s fashion, and the darkest side of high school you could imagine. The movie’s messed up elements are packaged with humor, like when Courtney says, “Liz is dead. Liz is dead! Do you have any idea what this means?” and Marcie responds, “You’re a shoo-in for prom queen?” without a hint of sarcasm. In contrast, Julie’s grief is subtly handled, her moments spent with old photos and visiting Liz’s devastated mom being among the only serious elements throughout the whole movie. The soundtrack mixes ‘50s and ‘60s classics like Connie Francis’s “Lollipop Lips” and Bing Crosby’s “Young at Heart” with the ‘90s girl rock of Veruca Salt and the Donnas.
Truly, Jawbreaker would be nothing without Rose McGowan’s portrayal of the vicious Courtney Shayne, ultimate mean girl and up-and-coming sociopath. Based on Gene Tierney’s character in Leave Her to Heaven, Courtney Shayne is a brutal, blunt student with an understanding of the world around her that goes far beyond her years. Her Snow White-esque good looks contrast with her biting wit and perfectly crass language, mirroring the movie’s metaphor of the jawbreaker to a T. It’s Courtney that decides how they’re going to cover up Liz Purr’s murder (“They’ll believe it because it’s their worst nightmare: Elizabeth Purr, the very picture of teenage perfection, obliterated by perversion”) and Courtney who manages to make the nerdy Fern their accomplice by remaking her into the vivacious Vylette (“You’re nothing. We’re everything. You are the shadow, we are the sun”). It’s Courtney’s confidence that allows her to get away with murder for so long, but it’s that same confidence that ends up biting her in the ass in the end. Her blunt confession (“I killed Liz! I killed the teen dream! Deal with it.”), caught on tape by a recordable picture frame, is aired for the whole prom to hear, and she walks out to her whole class throwing their corsages at her.
While Jawbreaker may have had a less-than-stellar critical and financial life upon its theatrical release, the home video release and frequent TV showings made it into a cult classic. Critics have since revisited the film and praised it for its sharp performances and dark humor, recognizing its place in the teen movie landscape. It pays homage to the iconic teen movies that came before it like Heathers, Carrie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Grease, going as far as to cast Jeff Conaway (Grease’s own Kenickie) as Marcie Fox’s dad. While Jawbreaker honors what came before, it paved the way for many teen movie elements since, specifically when looking at Mean Girls. Consider the popular girl rules, the infamous hallway walk, and let’s be honest here–Courtney Shayne ran just so Regina George could walk. The legacy of Jawbreaker doesn’t stop there; the movie was made into a musical starring Elizabeth Gillies (Victorious, Dynasty) in 2013 and is currently in development as a TV show for E! Here’s to hoping that whoever plays Courtney is ready to fill Rose McGowan’s shiny, vicious red heels.