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25 years later, Jawbreaker is sweeter than ever as a queer cult classic

Jawbreaker movie 25 year anniversary essay
TriStar Pictures

With its dark humor and satirical take on high school life, Jawbreaker proves timeless in its appeal and influence on pop culture since its release.

On a February weekend in 1999, a killer candy unwrapped quietly and finished its box office run with a paltry $3.1 million in revenue. But, if everything was going to plan… this is exactly what creator Darren Stein was hoping for.

Now, twenty-five years on, this sneaky sleepover staple turned enigmatic classic is still rocking us like a hurricane, JAWBREAKER! The name says it all - it’ll break your VHS player from rewatches. Who could resist that hypnotic, rainbow-infused cover art that says yes, there is a dead body, but we are going to have some fun? The keen viewer knew that something here was special, something that would never feel dated but just exist. Things age so fast these days, especially teenagers.

I hold a certain amount of pride for this film that has never peaked in its post-cult status because it continues to grow its fandom and be an inspiration for artwork, TikToks, drag shows, and more. Another DOA turned-here to stay-90’s film, Showgirls, has documentaries and books about it. Jawbreaker deserves the same treatment. Rolling Stone called “Jawbreakers” the best teen movie since “Heathers!” There isn’t a better compliment than that.

“Life is hard enough without the added anxiety,” proclaims Marcie, hysterically played by Julie Benz. Twenty-five years later and this line is ever-so-relatable in 2024. Marcie’s dad voices his concern that she is a follower and not a leader, and how dangerous it is to hide our true selves. I wasted so much time being a cowering Marcie in a posse that would not hesitate to banish me in a heartbeat.

It’s easy to brush off teenagers complaining of their woes. But there’s a reason we still have dreams and nightmares of high school, lost lovers, and friends – that’s when our anxiety was born. It’s where we learned to navigate, fight, and survive, especially if a frenemy was lurking outside your bedroom with a plan.

Jawbreaker movie 25 year anniversary essayTriStar Pictures

Let the good times roll and revisit the film’s Reagan High: Julie (played by Rebecca Gayheart) loses Liz (played by Charlotte Ayanna) to an “accidental” death and complies with the girl gang for as long as she can withstand. But her conscience haunts her, and Julie’s defiance of Courtney (played by Rose McGowan) gets her ostracized. Julie later sees a vision of Liz, where the apparition is able to let Julie know that she’ll protect her if she can just hang in there a little longer and try to save both of their souls. (The song in this scene, “Flow” by Transister, is just one of many bangers on the impossibly incredible soundtrack)

Added to the mix is Fern, later Vylette, played effortlessly by Judy Greer. She’s a mix of Heathers’s Betty Finn, Tai Fraiser from Clueless, and Frankenstein, and I found comfort in this lesbian-coded character. The way she knew the beauty marks on Liz’s neck, connecting the dots and creating artwork – so much passion and shielded desires withered away in our little heads, with only ourselves to talk to about it.

Fern is the sole witness of the crime and is bribed with power to keep the murder a secret. Courtney isn’t stupid; rule the school but make sure to know the “shadows” because you just might need them. Julie understands Fern’s choice and even recollects their childhood innocence: “Time doesn’t erase things. People erase things.” Soon enough, Vylette becomes stoic, popular, and monstrous under the spell that is only broken when Courtney can’t stand to see the power dynamics abused. High school never ends.

Julie puts up a good fight but her pain and isolation overcome her. She sits on her bed trying to solve her own puzzle and the annoying Rubik’s Cube-like toy she’s fiddling with. But Julie is also a good person, and that’s why Liz’s mom felt she should have a box full of nostalgia that just, maybe, Julie planted all along earlier on as evidence to bring Courtney down for good.

Fern and Julie walk into the prom with POWER they finally have in their favor. There’s something beautiful about the exchange between them, reverting to childhood innocence while their peers are vilifying them. The ultimate adolescent, defense dialogue: “Do you hear something?” “No, do you hear something?” These are the wits I confided in to survive the playground of school and life.

One hopes that Marcie eventually learned the error of her ways. She never gets a chance to stand up to Courtney but, for a moment at least, she controls the narrative when she confidently says “I’m so bored tonight” while Courtney anxiously awaits her big announcement.

Then comes one of the best teen takedowns in film a la Carrie, and rivaled only by Cruel Intentions. The dragon is slayed, the witch has melted, and when Julie blows that kiss, the earth stops, the chilling sound effects of ice - and, perhaps, the faintest echo of Liz’s spirit too. And that little, last full-circle slow-motion shot of Julie now holding the Polaroid? Chef’s kiss. I can’t tell you how many times I pretended to be her in this scene!

Prom is redeemed and, in a quiet way, Julie succeeds in what Carrie’s heroine Sue Snell sadly couldn’t – saving the day. The director gives us, the outcasts, our deserved happy ending. Did we need a finale? Maybe we could have seen “peace restored” but to end in the height of the madness was the right choice. Trapped in the yearbook forever.

Jawbreaker movie 25 year anniversary essayTriStar Pictures

Jawbreaker is the spectrum from monsters to heroes. Watching the film as an adult now, I’m able to see how I’ve taken the form of all of these characters at some point.

It was a quiet and sunny afternoon in Malibu a few months back when I spotted Rebecca Gayheart. While I’d usually find it way too ungraceful to intrude on a celebrity, in a quick and magic moment I was “Young At Heart” again and had to tell her how much Julie meant to me. It made her day and little me was happy that I’ve tried my best to be a Julie in a world full of Courtneys.

After all, the only thing better than being a bad bitch, is being a good bitch too. Toodles!

Devin Lotfiis an Iranian-American LGBTQ+ writer and actor from Maryland now residing in Los Angeles. He is also the host of "I Don't Want To HEAR That!", a podcast for fans of HBO’s cult favorite, The Comeback!

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Devin Lotfi