Breaking the Girls (2012)

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Who’s deceiving whom in this absorbing Strangers on a Train riff?
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US / 87 minutes / color / Myriad, Tapestry, Future, Light Iron, IFC Dir: Jamie Babbit Pr: Kirk D’Amico, Andrea Sperling Scr: Mark Distefano, Guinevere Turner Cine: Jeffrey Waldron Cast: Agnes Bruckner, Madeline Zima, Shawn Ashmore, Kate Levering, Shanna Collins, Davenia McFadden, Tiya Sircar, Melanie Mayron, Manish Dayal, Billy Mayo, Sam Anderson, John Stockwell, Jennifer Ann Massey.

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Orphaned scholarship law student Sara Ryan (Bruckner) works nights at a bar called The Roost. One evening one of her customers is a child of extreme privilege, the visibly flaky, unstable Alex Layton (Zima); hardly has she sat down than another customer, Tim (Dayal), crassly propositions her. Sara sends Tim packing and the two women exchange pleasantries.

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Alex (Madeline Zima) gets chatted up at The Roost.

But not for long, because into The Roost stumble Sara’s classmates Brooke Potter (Collins), Brooke’s toady Piper Sperling (Sircar) and Brooke’s boyfriend Eric Nolan (Ashmore), son of their law professor (Anderson). Brooke loathes Sara because Sara’s a scholarship girl and because she knows Eric and Sara have feelings for each other even if they haven’t translated those feelings into anything more; her hatred only increases when it’s clear the uppercrust Alex is interested in being friends with Sara yet rebuffs Brooke. Brooke thus persuades Sara’s boss, Jones (Mayo), to fire her from The Roost, and later engineers the loss of Sara’s scholarship and even her dorm place.

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Eric (Shawn Ashmore) and the ghastly Brooke (Shanna Collins) are an item.

By then Alex and Sara have slept together, although Sara, primarily straight, wants to regard it as just a one-off adventure. That’s not so easy when, devoid of funds and housing because of Brooke’s venom, she has little choice but to move in with Alex in the chichi house that Alex’s stepfather David (Stockwell) has bought her.

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Alex (Madeline Zima) après swim.

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Sara (Agnes Bruckner) soon falls under Alex’s influence.

Alex puts to Sara an idea—essentially a version of the deal that underpins Patricia Highsmith’s novel Strangers on a Train (1950) and the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock movie based upon it. Alex will murder the odious Brooke Potter, thus clearing Sara’s way with Eric while also cleansing the environment, and in return Sara will murder Alex’s loathed stepmother, the art taxidermist Nina Layton (Levering).

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Nina (Kate Levering) and David (John Stockwell) come across Alex and Sara making alfresco love.

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Alex (Madeline Zima) demonstrates Nina’s derringer to Sara (Agnes Bruckner).

Sure enough, Alex goes ahead and drowns Brooke in the local swimming pool, then forcefully observes, when Sara balks at killing Nina, that Sara has no alibi for Brooke’s murder and that Alex could quickly produce lots of circumstantial evidence pointing toward her guilt. She sends Sara off armed with a derringer to the home of David and Nina. Sara’s plan is to warn Nina of what’s going on so they can go to the cops together, but when she gets there she discovers David murdered. Just then the cops, led by the officer who’s been investigating Brooke’s murder, Detective Ross (McFadden), burst in to find Sara standing over the body with the murder weapon in her hand . . .

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Alex (Madeline Zima) shows Sara she has Brooke’s spectacles, which she can proffer as circumstantial evidence of Sara’a guilt.

The next twist is by now obvious: It seems Alex and Nina are lovers and between them have framed Sara so as to get their hands on David’s fortune. Yet there are plenty of further twists on their way, some of which are by no means as guessable, and the very final scenes throw a completely new light on everything that has gone before.

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Alex (Madeline Zima) watches smugly as Sara is driven away by the cops.

Breaking the Girls begins almost like a TV movie, with a TV movie’s level of acting and some clumsy scripting. In hindsight this seems deliberate, because several of the cast are portraying amateurs who’re themselves playing roles for their own sociopathic or other reasons. And there’s some humor, too, especially at Brooke’s funeral, where Professor Nolan, as conscious as anyone else that the girl was a viper, delivers a glowing eulogy.

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Professor Nolan (Sam Anderson) delivers the eulogy to Brooke.

I hadn’t realized before diving in that Breaking the Girls was a lesbian movie—I’d been drawn to it by a reference I’d come across comparing it David Lynch’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). The comparison didn’t in the event seem all that valid; this might better be thought of as a distant lesbian cousin to John Dahl’s The LAST SEDUCTION (1994). Although there’s really quite a lot of sex in the piece, there’s nothing graphic and there’s no nudity. All in all, it’s a movie that’s open to anyone, male or female, gay or straight. Although the ending—complete with a brief glimpse of Sara’s mother Sophie (Massey)—left me puzzling for some minutes, that only went to make the movie so much more rewarding for me.

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As planned with Alex, Sara (Agnes Bruckner) holds Nina (Kate Levering) up at gunpoint.

Breaking the Girls isn’t flawless—presumably made on a non-blockbuster budget, it never does quite shake itself free of that TV movie air—but it has many merits. The cinematography is more than pleasing; clearly Waldron has a particular affinity for the patterns of light reflected off moving water. The four principals are fine (although Ashmore has less to do than the other three), and they’re given a tremendous performance in support by McFadden as the investigating cop. I’m eager to see more of director Babbit’s work.

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Davenia McFadden as Detective Ross.

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Agnes Bruckner as Sara.

Madeline Zima was the child in The HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1992) and her sister Yvonne was the child in The LONG KISS GOODNIGHT (1996).

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On Amazon.com: Breaking the Girls DVD

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6 thoughts on “Breaking the Girls (2012)

  1. Not at all familiar with this one John, but most intrigued after reading this splendid account of it, and learning it is indepted to one of my favorite films, Hitch’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

    • Thanks for dropping by, Sam, and for the kind words. I’m hooing to fit in Jamie Babbit’s The Quiet at some point in the not too distant future. To judge by Breaking the Girls she’s a directorial talent to watch.

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