Breaking the Girls

by Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson

EXPECTATIONS: Based on The Quiet, which balanced its lurid subject matter with a great sense of atmosphere and a Hitchcockian plot gimmick, I've been waiting for Jamie Babbit's return to thrillers. Besides, after Brian de Palma's Passion, I'm intrigued to see how talented directors are reinventing erotic thrillers in the post-everything 21st century.

REALITY: "OK, this is crazy. I have to face her. I have an idea. I think it'll work."

"OK."

That's just a sample of the quality writing in Breaking the Girls, which would fit quite well into Lifetime's afternoon block if not for the pot-smoking, profanity and softcore sex. The scenes in which beautiful half-naked people plot against each other from the safety of their beds, into and out of which they hop in various configurations, certainly have a charmingly goofy 1990s cable-movie vibe, even if Breaking the Girls isn't edgy enough for late-night Cinemax.

There's always one.

I'd like to say that vibe was intentional, especially considering the film's pedigree (director Jamie Babbit, co-writer Guinevere Turner and star Agnes Bruckner have separately been involved in the production of at least five great films), but Breaking the Girls uses Strangers on a Train as a starting block and Wild Things as the finish line. Ultimately, it's derivative, slight, poorly written and tone deaf.

In this iteration, which drags the original's homosexual subtext kicking and screaming to the surface, Sara (Bruckner) is the Guy Haines, a struggling, mostly straight law student who steals from tip jars to make ends meet. After a romantic rival (Shanna Collins) reports her malfeasance just to be, like, totally petty, she meets her Bruno Antony, Alex (Madeline Zima), an angsty rich girl who seems to know a lot about famous lesbian killers.

Cue the night-swim fingerbanging.

The next morning, after Sara makes an awkward attempt to leave, Alex caresses her face, looks her deep in the eyes and says, with much melancholy, "Yeah, I've been hooking up with a lot of straight girls recently, so I know the drill." It's the only human moment in an inhuman film, human enough to inspire a montage of Sara and Alex growing closer before, quite suddenly, Sara moves into Alex's wing of her father's (John Stockwell) mansion.

Soon, or so Alex thinks, they're recreating Heavenly Creatures. When Sara fails to fulfill her end of the bargain -- she thought they were joking when they were discussing who they would kill for each other -- Alex goes all psycho-lesbian while Sara, with the help of her ex-boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore), begins uncovering what seems to be a deeper conspiracy.

Bear in mind, Breaking the Girls is only 83 minutes long, which is a lovely change of pace in a summer full of epics, but all the plot I described above occurs in the first hour (and, no, I haven't really spoiled anything unless you've never seen Strangers on a Train or the vastly superior Throw Momma From the Train). Really, we're just killing time until a third act that's as twisty as two lesbians on a trampoline, which is not a joke at the expense of lesbians because that actually happens in the film.

The final twist makes Breaking the Girls almost worthwhile for thriller junkies who've already seen every good thriller. If the first 78 minutes were as good as the final five -- or if we didn't have to judge a movie based on the merits of its screenplay, acting, dialogue, cinematography or night-swim fingerbanging -- Breaking the Girls would be a solid flick. But, oh, what a long, featureless road we travel to get there.

Considering what Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader did for the mainstream acceptance of queer cinema, Breaking the Girls does lesbians a disservice by throwing Alex front and center. Here is the lesbian stereotype that gay advocates were protesting way back when Basic Instinct was equating them with icy, manipulative killers. Well, it's been two decades, and Alex -- due in part to Zima's performance -- comes off less as a lesbian than the epitome of everyone's worst ideas about lesbians. She lacks discretion (she's "been hooking up with a lot of straight girls," remember?), she's fickle and possessive, she reclines against a bearskin rug and stares dead-eyed at the camera while she's gettin' some head, and she's willing to kill people to maintain control over her straight-woman crush.

... or so we think. One could argue that the portion of the plot I haven't spoiled redefines the character and some of her tendencies, but it's still incredibly far from progressive. While great thrillers built on twists usually demand a rewatch so we can see how everything fell into place, Breaking the Girls defies repeat viewing. Once is an endurance contest; twice would be masochism.

Softcore Sex0/10
Madeline Zima1/10
Treatment of Lesbians1/10
Treatment of Cell Phones0/10
The Final Twist7/10
Overall9/50

MINORITY REPORT: Given what you've said of this film, does the title here refer to "breaking a girl," like "breaking a horse?" Because that's... that's pretty fucked up - Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

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