Sour bite

Movie: Jawbreaker

Our Rating: 3.00

Courtney Shayne, a foxy and foul-mouthed teen queen, is the kind of '90s young woman who thrives on subservient friends, kinky sex and snappy solutions to the messiest of problems. The busty brunette, given to roaming campus hallways in skin-tight jeans and high heels, is spoiled, rich and devoid of a conscience. Worse, she's so consistently and relentlessly mean that she must be motivated by the supernatural. "She's so evil, and she's only in high school," a nemesis exclaims, in one of the (purposely?) funniest lines of the still-young film year.

It's the dialogue, in fact, mostly of the ultrabitchy variety, that helps define "Jawbreaker" as pure pop-culture cartoon rather than anything more substantial. "It's not like we kill people ... on purpose," says Courtney, memorably embodied by Rose McGowan ("Scream") in a role as over-the-edge as Christian Slater's character in the similarly themed "Very Bad Things." Both, coincidentally, are self-consciously hip but ultimately hollow.

"Jawbreaker" borrows from both the black comedy of the far superior "Heathers" and the "My Fair Lady" makeover fantasy recently revived in "She's All That." It opens with a brutal bit of business that makes an intriguing premise: Courtney and snobby friends Julie Freeman (Rebecca Gayheart) and Marcie Fox (Julie Benz) pull a vicious prank as a 17th birthday present for Liz Purr (Charlotte Roldan), the sweet and well-liked fourth member of a clique of babes who rule the roost at Ronald Reagan High School.

Liz, shocked wide-awake by a trio of invaders in masks and hoods, is bound and gagged and stuffed in the back of a trunk. Breakfast is called off when the merry pranksters discover to their consternation that the birthday girl has suffocated on a jawbreaker that Courtney stuffed in her mouth. "Do you know what this means?" the ringleader asks her co-conspirators. Marcie does: "That you're a shoo-in for prom queen." Julie, horrified, wants to come clean and call the police. She's overruled and gives in to Courtney's plan to return the corpse to Liz's bed and arrange the death to appear like the result of rough sex.

The perfect cover-up is spoiled by the arrival of Fern Mayo (Judy Evans Greer), a homely classmate who idolized Liz. The frightened intruder is rapidly convinced to make a hellish deal: In exchange for her silence, Courtney will allow the social outcast to become "one of us." High fashion meets Frankenstein in a campy, psychedelic montage that follows, as Fern is turned into Vylette. Julie, almost simultaneously, gets a make-under, as she's transformed from arrogant goddess into all-American girl, and the person most likely to expose the evildoing. Vylette, true to form, turns into a monster, threatening to destroy her creator(s).

Darren Stein, the 26-year-old writer and director also responsible for indie prize-winner "Sparkler," laces his sweet-and-sour treat with other tangy ingredients, including tough chick Pam Grier as a suspicious police detective and several faces familiar from other teenybopper flicks, including William Katt and P.J. Soles as the dead girl's parents, and Carol Kane as a befuddled assistant principal.

"Jawbreaker" additionally incorporates a college-rock soundtrack (Veruca Salt, Letters to Cleo, the Donnas, Imperial Teen) and a cameo by Marilyn Manson, a.k.a. McGowan's schlock-star boyfriend. All add to a confection that's refreshingly tart going down but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

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