More 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 with elements from “Carrie,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Clueless” and other classic school yarns. The strongest dimensions of this self-conscious but centerless film are four sexy actresses parading in colorful costumes and Amy Vincent’s radiant lensing, which makes the picture seem hipper than it is. Sony release must distinguish itself in a market glutted by youth fare and date movies. But since the budget is extremely low (around $3 million), even moderate B.O., which is anticipated, should cover production and marketing costs and perhaps reap more significant returns.
In his sophomore effort, Darren Stein, whose feature debut, “Sparkler,” will be released by Strand in March, demonstrates a flair for 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 pics and other youth and horror films. Problem is, once premise is established, Stein has a hard time spinning a smart, entertaining tale worthy of feature length.
As in “Heathers,” the four bitch-queen protagonists form the school’s most powerful clique — here the set-ting is 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 voiceover 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 opens the car’s trunk and realizes that Liz is dead.
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 (Judy Greer), the class nerd, who stumbles onto 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 from the group, while the unappealing Fern is transformed through makeup 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.
Unfortunately, Stein’s attempt to make a Faustian tale of corruption and redemption is unsuccessful, largely because his script is shallow and lacking in resourceful comic ideas. But “Jawbreaker” is not mindless: Familiar as they are, the notions of excessive conformity, the terror of peer pressure and the ostracizing of outcasts are effectively illustrated with a giddy visual style.
Ultimately, though, 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 “Carrie” alumni P.J. Soles and William Katt 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 whose name, Vera Cruz, is the title of a Gary Cooper Western).
With the distinctive look and feel she brings to films, Vincent, who provided luminous camerawork on “Eve’s Bayou,” is rapidly becoming a major lenser. Dominant visual motif — the clique’s arrogant daily walk down the school’s corridor — is staged and lensed in a way that that brings to mind a gang preparing for a climactic shootout.
Headed by a seductive McGowan, the female cast is appealing, but pic 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 a 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, pic provides numerous visual pleasures, and terrific soundtrack should boost its commercial viability.