Let’s face it: When it comes to comedic adolescent cruelty and high-stakes high school drama, Mean Girls has nothing on Jawbreaker, the 1999 film directed by Darren Stein that helped cement household status for Rose McGowan, Rebecca Gayheart, Julie Benz and Judy Greer.
It’s hard to believe that two decades have passed since our favorite high school vixens accidentally killed their bestie Julie with a jawbreaker. Since Fern Mayo transformed into the drunk-with-power Angelyne clone “Vylette.” Since audiences witnessed the second-best prom night showdown ever committed to film. (Naturally, 1976’s Carrie, to which homage is paid in Jawbreaker‘s finale, takes that top honor.)
But what better time than 20 years later to look back at a film that enraptured queer boys everywhere and helped set the standard for dark teen comedies to follow? Not since Heathers had a film centered around high school teens so perfectly captured the ennui of an entire generation while also weaving its way into the pop culture lexicon.
Bloody Disgusting offers up this perfectly succinct premise of Jawbreaker:
Jawbreaker opens on a birthday prank gone wrong: HS sweetheart Liz Purr (Charlotte Ayanna)’s fake home invasion ends in death when the titular jawbreaker gets lodged in her throat and she asphyxiates in the trunk of her friends’ car.
Immediately sociopathic queen bee Courtney (Rose McGowan), dim-witted follower Marcie (Julie Benz) and bland Julie (Rebecca Gayheart) come to a crossroads about how to proceed. Courtney and Marcie pressure Julie into covering the murder up, and eventually Courtney frames a lecherous stranger (Marilyn Manson) and makes over Fern Mayo (Judy Greer), the only witness to the crime, in order to buy her silence. From this point on, the clique dissolves into all-out warfare, all waged in killer clothes, bitchy one-liners and a shocking exposé of Courtney’s shameful acts that unfurls at — where else? — the prom.
In a piece published today by i-D that reminisces over the film’s brilliant sartorial choices — credited to Vikki Barrett, who also worked on Clueless and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion — Stein credits Jawbreaker‘s lasting impact to the film’s “celebration of the bad girl.” McGowan’s sociopathic Courtney Shayne is deliciously evil but has so much swagger that both girls and gays wanted to be her.
“It’s also a female-dominated world where the males are secondary characters or arm candy, where women have the power, and their strength and sexuality are celebrated,” Stein says, relaying what’s practically the formula for a film wishing to woo queer audiences.
McGowan has also chimed in regarding the 20th anniversary of Jawbreaker, having written a wonderfully acerbic piece for Refinery29 that acts as both a treatise on the subversive film’s lasting value and a tongue-in-cheek threat to whoever fills the shoes of Courtney Shayne in the upcoming TV series revival. (“I wish you the best of luck, but nobody will ever be me,” she says, which she admits is “a very Courtney Alice Shayne thing to say, but it’s true.”)
The actress — who has since developed a reputation for capably exposing Hollywood exploitation, in interviews and in her own book, Brave — says of the film, “We knew that it was really special, what it meant to the LGBT community to have an out director, Darren Stein, creating his vision for a studio. A lot of movies are done by committee, and this one definitely wasn’t. We all knew we were doing something that the establishment wouldn’t like, but we weren’t afraid. We weren’t afraid of anybody.”
That fearlessness engaged audiences of gay boys and their fruit flies 20 years ago and is doubtlessly why many consider Jawbreaker a cult classic and the encapsulation of a moment in time.
“The love that exists for Jawbreaker isn’t classic, sweet nostalgia. It’s cooler, a little scarier, and a dangerous twist on that concept,” McGowan says. “Fitting, for the movie turned a sweet, classic candy into a murder weapon.”