At the center of Breaking the Girls, festering like an open sore, is the stereotype of the psycho lesbian bitch. As embodied by Madeline Zima, Alex Leyton is a scheming, unstable vamp who excels in manipulation, is given to extreme jealousy, and encourages others to commit murder. Or is she? Jamie Babbit’s film is so full of twists and turns, either of the painfully obvious or the ridiculously strained variety, that no one’s quite who he or (mostly) she seems to be. But one thing is obvious: The movie takes joy in playing up its central archetype and, even if it later modifies our understanding of Alex, it just substitutes another form of more calculating, less hysterical Sapphic machinations for those of this problematic central figure.
In fact, Breaking the Girls is all about women trying to out-scheme each other. That is, when they’re not fucking one another—and sometimes even when they are. Seemingly innocent (and hetero) law student, Sara Ryan (Agnes Bruckner), finds herself the target of bitchy colleague Brooke Potter’s (Shanna Collins) efforts to sabotage her standing at the university. When a highly flirtatious Alex shows up at the bar where Sara tends part time, the two hit it off, eventually going back to her place and having sex, Sara taking instantly to her first same-sex encounter. After Brooke gets Sara’s subsidized housing revoked, the latter moves in with Alex, becoming her regular lover. When Sara unfolds her woes to her new roomie, Alex starts scheming to undertake a Strangers on a Train-style murder exchange in which she would kill Brooke and Sara would take out Alex’s stepfather’s obnoxious new wife.
Things don’t work out quite according to plan, first because Sara refuses to carry out her part of the arrangement and later because it’s revealed that all of the film’s female characters have hidden motives. About two-thirds of the way through Breaking the Girls, the twists start to come hot and heavy and the film goes from simplistic bad-lesbian drama to would-be edgy, shocking thriller. But the plot points land with the thud that comes from contrived inevitability, and the film proves to be a singularly unexciting piece of work, never mind the obligatory but surpassingly tame three-way make-out session in a swimming pool. (Wild Things this is not). Instead, it’s just another tepid girls-behaving-badly drama that isn’t in the least subversive. Rather than use its exploration of lesbianism as a tool of empowerment for its women, and notwithstanding the justifications indicated by the final plot twist, the film turns into a cynical portrait of Machiavellian scheming, in which to be the biggest, most calculating bitch is to be the last one left standing.