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Film Review: ‘Breaking the Girls’

With:
Agnes Bruckner, Madeline Zima, Shawn Ashmore, Kate Levering, Shanna Collins, Davenia McFadden, Tiya Sircar, Melanie Mayron, Manish Dayal, Billy Mayo, Sam Anderson, John Stockwell.

A lipstick-lesbian riff on “Strangers on a Train,” “Breaking the Girls” is a watchable but somewhat routinely pulpy mix of sex, blackmail and murder, a polished low-budgeter that doesn’t rise above the neo-noir formulaics of Mark Distefano and Guinevere Turner’s screenplay. Picked up by IFC for U.S. theatrical release, Jamie Babbit’s film seems more likely to find its audience via cable and streaming formats.

Smart but broke law-school student Sara (Agnes Bruckner) loses her bartending job, scholarship and university housing when snotty customer Brooke (Shanna Collins) rats her out for palming a few bucks from the tip jar at work — presumably because she thinks Sara is horning in on her nice-guy b.f., Eric (Shawn Ashmore). Sara is rescued, sort of, by party girl Alex (Madeline Zima), a wealthy wild child who encourages her new friend’s Sapphic tendencies.

A tipsy Alex proposes that Sara kill Nina (Kate Levering), the disapproving spouse of Alex’s stepdad, David (John Stockwell), in exchange for her killing Brooke. Sara doesn’t take this offer seriously by Sara, but once Brooke turns up dead, it’s clear Alex is crazier than she seems (to Sara, at least — to viewers, there’s never any doubt that Alex is straight-up
nuts).

Pretty quickly, the scheming Alex has framed Sarah for that murder and a subsequent one, all conveniently placing Alex in possession of a huge family fortune. Police detective Ross (Davenia McFadden) puts Sara in jail, but her skepticism later proves a big help. Meanwhile, Sara, with an assist from Eric, turns into a power-balance-flipping master of counter-conspiracy — an improbable leap later explained by yet more improbable twists upon twists.

A slightly odd fit for gay fests, “Breaking the Girls” falls into the retro category of erotic thrillers featuring bisexual characters whose gay involvements are considerably more sinister than their heterosexual ones. It does a decent job of downplaying that gist in execution, and the story does get less derivative as it goes along. Still, the sum effect is less clever than over-contrived.

Aside from Zima’s unsubtle turn, performances are solid, and despite modest means, the techical and design contributions are expert.

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