Review: Breaking the Girls (2013)

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Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Madeline Zima, Shawn Ashmore
Director: Jamie Babbit
Country: USA
Genre: Crime | Thriller
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Notes: Breaking the Girls is now open in limited release and on VOD

There are two shots in Breaking the Girls, both of them immaculately lensed, where two characters’ silhouettes look out over a valley kissed by the setting sun. In one, toward the start of the film, they are Sara and Alex: two young women at the same college whose burgeoning romance would seem to be the crux of the film. Whether it’s the same pair to whom the second set of silhouettes belong is the film’s own secret to divulge, after a whole host of plot developments and nineteen twists too many. The point, primarily, is that even if it is them, it isn’t: by its finale, this story has thrown caution to the wind and let character fly off with it, all sense of the dramatic stakes it pains to establish in its opening act long lost, traded for roundabout turns and erotic thrills.

The issue with Breaking the Girls is the inadequacy of the intention and the messiness of the means: what, when all is said and done, is the film trying to say?

breaking_the_girls_2013_4And there’s no inherent problem therein: only a prude would lament drama yielding territory to the erotic thriller, a narrative form no less legitimate in intention or means. The issue with Breaking the Girls is the inadequacy of the intention and the messiness of the means: what, when all is said and done, is the film trying to say? There’s no answer to be found in the script, penned by Mark Distefano and Guinevere Turner, which busies itself in deceiving the viewer with veiled motivations and vague relationships rather than critiquing the culture of LA luxury from which these girls arrive. The closest the film comes to being in any way incisive is in a plot point—in the plot point, rather—so glaringly lifted from Strangers on a Train as to make one search for a “based on” credit.

That clever visual metaphor montage that Hitchcock used of overlapping tracks branching off in multiple directions works well for Breaking the Girls too, if it was to be played at ten times the speed. This is a movie that starts accelerating and doesn’t stop, that powers along its generic tracks blindly determined to take every turn possible. It is inevitably doomed to derail. Distefano and Turner have cobbled together a hodge-podge of Hitchcock and bunny boiler, or rather weak variants thereof: theirs is a script as feckless as it is fast, tossing together vagrant ingredients and hoping they might meld to a satisfying whole. They don’t, unsurprisingly, and their eventual series of narrative twists plays less like the payoff of sharp story structuring than a desperate attempt to mask sloppiness with speed.

Distefano and Turner have cobbled together a hodge-podge of Hitchcock and bunny boiler, or rather weak variants thereof: theirs is a script as feckless as it is fast, tossing together vagrant ingredients and hoping they might meld to a satisfying whole.

breaking_the_girls_2013_3Jamie Babbit, a director for whom lesbianism is a recurring concern in films like But I’m a Cheerleader and Itty Bitty Titty Committee, deserves considerable commendation for bringing out the best in this script, however little that might be. Her opening movement, that which concludes in the aforementioned first sunset shot, is a resounding success: it’s the way in which she channels Jeffrey Waldron’s handheld camerawork and Michael Darrow’s concise cutting that allows this shot to be the movie’s peak, the things it says about its broken characters infinitely more interesting than any sprawling efforts to keep the audience guessing at what might come next. The crescendo of drawbacks that constitute the script’s developments may eventually overwhelm the power of the direction, but Babbit relents, and her aesthetic retains some semblance of visual intrigue to remind us that, at some level deep down, there are characters here.

A similar reminder arrives courtesy of the cast, whose work here deserves to be put to use in a far better film. Chief among them are Agnes Bruckner and Madeline Zima, who make not only an appreciable eroticism of Sara and Alex’s courtship, but who handle the overwhelming abundance of twists with consummate chameleonic grace. Zima, particularly—her skills perhaps honed through her similar role on Californication—excels, flitting from developmentally arrested innocent to Machiavellian manipulator at the snap of a finger. It’s for her and the others in the cast and crew who believe in this story that Breaking the Girls makes any impact at all. It’s for the film’s ability to inspire the same in us, though, that that impact is so little.

[notification type=”star”]44/100 ~ BAD. It’s for Zima and the others in the cast and crew who believe in this story that Breaking the Girls makes any impact at all. It’s for the film’s ability to inspire the same in us, though, that that impact is so little.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.