Candy-colored femme fury and the queer legacy of Darren Stein's Jawbreaker


Jawbreaker contained everything a typical teen movie was made of: popular kids, outcasts, sex, romance, drama, comedy and, of course, the quintessential dream of changing ones high school caste via the magic of a makeover and the prom. Jawbreaker also included aspects uncommon for the teen genre:  kidnapping, murder, tales of rape and a detective played by the one and only B-movie badass Pam Grier. Director and writer Darren Stein was not even 30 whilst bringing this well-loved film to life in 1999, strengthened by his creative bond and muse-esqe admiration for Rose McGowan. McGowan perfected focal villainess, Courtney, the self-appointed ringleader after accidentally murdering their friend, Liz, who flashbacks with Laura Palmer-like eerie etherealness. Following the natural footsteps of McGowan’s Doom Generation Valley Girl wit, Darren Stein had created a fresh blend of glamour and gore.

Stein’s decision to use a high school setting played out by fashionable 90’s dames was a truly delicious way to alter a horror script. The depraved schemes and murderous secrets were certainly more interesting and inspired through the glossy veneer of female competition and tongue-in-cheek teen talk. Pre-Mean Girls lunch “rules” and social clout a main concern, the threat of ostracization a war within the school hallways, met a truly macabre plot. Stein referred to the film as “candy-coloured goth” in a past interview with McGowan and no description could be more accurate. Even when Stein paid mini homages, like recreating Vylette’s corvette moment as a high school version of IRL LA legend Angelyne, or borrowed bits of dialogue from past films he loved, they were presented in an incredibly effective alternate universe. The mere presence of Queen Bitches and hive mind may still at times be one heel in the mainstream, but underground status or not, Jawbreaker is a bonafide femme fury of a 90’s cult classic.

Stein’s brilliant 2013 film G.B.F. tackled high school again through a more heartfelt story with Stein’s strong tongue-in-cheek and high school sass in tact. Rejoined by Jawbreaker’s semi-heroine Rebecca Gayheart with additions of Natasha Lyonne and newcomer Michael J. Willett, G.B.F. tackled more than the closeted experience during these impressionable and vulnerable academic years. The dynamics of socialitess rivalry and the problematic accessorizing of the “gay best friend” spoke more directly to queer audiences. Saturated feminine visibility and queer visibility have both too often been pushed into B-movie bylines and Stein tends to turn both up to 11, unapologetically. An unspoken stigmatization that cliques and cat fights are only entertaining to the girls and the gay has made many films difficult to receive a direct spotlight or proper funding and due credit in Hollywood. Stein’s depiction of power struggle within Jawbreaker and G.B.F. both entice entertainment but speak to a larger level of wanting love and acceptance, mistakened so frequently through power. The vortex of Jawbreaker’s queer and high femme energy with its horrific plotline may have been deemed too dark for full studio support at its advent, but its massive reign on teen films afterwards is undeniable. 

Jawbreaker was released twenty years ago and is highly recognized as a cult classic. The cattiness of the cut throat conversations between the inner clique has felt in many ways ahead of its time and has set the tone for many teen films after it. What motivated you to be so raw and yet so witty with the script for this film? 

I was heavily influenced by John Waters and his theatrical over-the-top dialogue as well as Rocky Horror and Grease - as musicals, they’re inherently heightened. Then there’s a film like Carrie that’s melodramatic or Rock’n’Roll High School which has a B-movie archness. All these influences were at play when I sat down to write Jawbreaker

I was also influenced by Heathers, of course, and always appreciated that the writer Daniel Waters really created a new vernacular with that film. I leaned into the stylized dialogue to make it feel beyond a normal high school universe. The phrase “Peachy Keen” literally came out of the mouth of Rizzo in Grease - she’s my favorite high school bad girl. “I made you and I can break you just as easily” was uttered to Rocky by Frankenfurter. 

I really wanted Courtney to have a drag queen quality to her. No one like her can actually exist in high school but the terror and awe you can experience from these so called popular girls are very real. It was important to me that Courtney wasn’t just popular in a conventional sense. She was a bad girl. She was into kinky sex. Like a high school dominatrix version of the popular girl. I guess she was my fantasy version of that trope.  

Horror was definitely in my blood as a kid and an early major influence was The Hunger with Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie. There are definite traces of Miriam Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve) in Courtney’s seduction of Fern. You’d think she was granting Fern everlasting life by how dramatic her language is in that scene and being popular really is that big of a deal; it’s truly immortality in high school.

What challenges did you face in handling both the writing and directing of this film? Did you run into any trouble with the industry or production of this film?

It was a hard film to get made. I was introduced to Lisa Tornell and Stacy Kramer, a producing team who were looking for a teen film. Lisa had been a producer on The Craft. We brought it to all the studios and got passes from everyone. It was the home video division of Columbia Tristar that ended up financing it for a fraction of the budget of studio teen films. I would say I was allowed to make the film I wanted to make and the actors and the crew were all on board for my vision. The studio wanted to add in the more cartoony sound design effects in post production to give the film a more tongue-in-cheek quality and make it feel less dark and more fun. 

Also, the film originally began with the kidnapping and when we tested it for audiences, it was too violent and jarring for them. So I wrote that voiceover for Fern that opens the film where you see Liz Purr picking up her books and that sets up the clique and establishes the dynamic and the world. It sort of orients the audience before throwing them into this scary kidnapping. The whole film was such a big undertaking but it was so exciting to see it come to life so vividly. I remember watching the footage from the first day or two we shot. It was the wide shot of Fern walking up the path to Liz’s house and her at the doorway taking out her retainer and I could already tell it was something special. It was candy colored and lush and I knew it had exceeded even my expectations.


How would you describe the environment and energy among the crew and cast while filming Jawbreaker? 

I think everyone had a really good time making it. Of course the girls set a lot of the tone and it was fun for everyone to see what new outfit they’d come out in everyday. It was a very tight schedule because the budget was so low, so we were definitely on an accelerated schedule to get through it. There was a lot of laughing. We were all so young!  But the schedule was so compressed, we were filming at a breakneck pace and there were a lot of extras at the school and the prom so that always complicates things. 

I was always looking for ways to shoot scenes in the most efficient manner. Like the shot where the girls are walking through the school and Marcie’s talking about the color of her nails being called “Demented”... That was done in two shots. There was the wide shot of the girls walking and then the close up of Vylette looking back and forth between Courtney and Marcie trying to ingest all these rules. It works well in those two shots but that’s one of the scenes where I can remember how rushed we were. 

Certain scenes came together seamlessly like the big stick scene in Courtney’s room. Both Rose and Ethan Erickson who plays Dane were so excited to do that scene so when it came time to film it, we just had to make sure we had enough frozen big sticks. We all wanted to take that scene there and Rose was very game and so was Ethan. I think they know how important that scene was and how subversive it was for a teen film. 

We allowed more time to film the prom and the fantasy sequence where Fern becomes Vylette since we knew those were more elaborate design-wise and had more involved camerawork. Marilyn Manson was on set a lot because he and Rose were dating at that time so that was fun. I remember he walked up behind me once when there was a behind-the-scenes crew filming and he put the hood from the hoodie on my head and said ‘Homo-Wan Kenobi.’ Or another time he said to the camera crew ‘I think being in a film by Darren Stein makes me gay.’ Which is really the biggest compliment.

Join WUSSY on Wednesday July 10th for a screening of Jawbreaker at Plaza Theater Atlanta.

Tickets available for purchase here