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Strangers in a Bar

Shawn Ashmore, Madeline Zima, and Agnes Bruckner in “Breaking the Girls,” directed by Jamie Babbit. | IFC FILMS

Shawn Ashmore, Madeline Zima, and Agnes Bruckner in “Breaking the Girls,” directed by Jamie Babbit. | IFC FILMS

BY GARY M. KRAMER | Jamie Babbit’s films — “The Quiet” and “Itty Bitty Titty Committee” among them — address strong female friendships. Her wild and provocative new feature, “Breaking the Girls,” which has a script co-written by Guinevere Turner and Mark Distefano, is no exception. It may be her most potent film yet.

Sara (Agnes Bruckner) is a law student who tends bar. One night she meets Alex (Madeline Zima), and the two become fast friends and lovers. Sara, however, may really be pining for Eric (Shawn Ashmore), who is dating Brooke (Shanna Collins) — a classmate who gets Sara fired from the bar, which in turn costs her her scholarship.

In nod to Patricia Highsmith, Jamie Babbit explores sexuality’s dangerous secrets

Sara copes with her losses by spending more time with Alex, who proposes — a la “Strangers on a Train” — that they swap murders. Alex will dispatch bitchy Brooke, if Sara can get rid of Alex’s annoying stepmother, Nina (Kate Levering), an artist. “Breaking the Girls” depicts what happens next, but it is best to let audiences discover that for themselves.

In a recent phone interview, Babbit discussed the villainous lesbians who populate her film.

“My initial instinct in this film was that I’ve always been more interested in ‘Wild Things’ and ‘Bound’ rather than ‘Lianna,’ ‘Claire of the Moon,’ or ‘Bar Girls,’” she said. “I am a Patricia Highsmith fan. When I saw ‘Strangers on a Train,’ there were two great male parts. The female parts were lame and pathetic. I wanted to give those juicy roles to women.”

Women do get the choice material in the film. “Breaking the Girls” uses conventions of the crime genre — women as victims, women as gold-diggers, women fighting against women, and women who desire a man — before the denouement, which is explicitly lesbian and feminist. Babbit is proud of this accomplishment, explaining, “Gwen [Turner] and I thought about what Highsmith would have written if she’d been open about her sexuality and not forced to write in coded ways.”

Babbit’s debt to Highsmith is frankly acknowledged. In an homage to the late novelist, who carried a pet snail everywhere she went, Sara keeps one as a pet.

“Sara’s loyalty in the end is important to me,” Babbit explained, though revealing the object of that loyalty would be a spoiler. Suffice to say that in “Breaking the Girls,” homosexuality is fraught in the ways it was in Highsmith’s oeuvre.

“One of the scenes in the film, which I initiated, is that [someone] in the end is gay,” Babbit said. “She will live a very queer life. The twists and turns enliven the mystique, and that’s fascinating to me — where it’s more dangerous to be gay. That’s my inherent interest in hidden sexuality.”

The film’s deeply intense female friendship drives the story. By the last act of “Breaking the Girls,” the actresses face the challenge of clarifying each character’s romantic allegiance as secrets are revealed and betrayals occur at a dizzying rate. One of the actresses, Babbit said, “remembered the context better than I did!”

Asked how she herself deals with betrayal, Babbit candidly responded, “Life is full of betrayals, which is something I just expect. This is why I explore that theme in my films. That’s the cycle of relationships. People betray me in my life, but I’m still friendly with them. I’m a lesbian to the core! I’m still friends with all my exes.

The filmmaker, who had two kids during a 14-year relationship and is now with another woman, is thoroughly open about her sexuality, yet her characters are more ambiguous. Sara passes on the chance to tell a young man flirting with her at the bar that she’s not into guys.

“She’s kind of lost,” Babbit said. “I feel all the characters are queer. Originally there was a sex scene between Sara and Eric, and I didn’t want to film that. But I really liked the pool scene — I wanted the guy to be taken down in a titillating threesome.”

The “pool scene” in question has Sara and Alex and Eric alternating kisses until the girls make clear to Eric they want him out of the pool to be alone together. “Poor Shawn,” the filmmaker said of Ashmore, who was also in Babbit’s “The Quiet” before playing Eric here. “I keep putting him in my movies as the dupe.”

Audiences could be forgiven for feeling duped themselves by  a twisty narrative that prompts them to recalibrate their understanding of events and motives several times before the end credits. But this “keep-viewers-guessing” quality is precisely what makes Babbit’s film so deliciously entertaining.

BREAKING THE GIRLS | Directed by Jamie Babbit | IFC Films | Opens Jul. 26 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com

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