Like a lot of straight men out there, I liked Bring It On more than I care to admit. Director Peyton Reed infused Jessica Bendinger’s screenplay with hyperactivity and plenty of eye candy and, coupled with Bendinger’s often cringe-worthy dialogue, the film soared well past comedy and landed squarely in camp classic territory. There’s something about the near-ubiquity of the USA Network reruns of the movie that make it almost impossible not to watch. It’s a dumb movie, but not an unpleasant way to kill a couple hours. Unfortunately, in her first turn behind the camera for Stick It, Bendinger can’t recapture the bottled lightning that made her previous effort an instant part of the teen-movie zeitgeist. Her script here is flatter and much less involving, and she lacks Peyton’s feel for energy and framing, turning what could have been a worthy successor in her pseudo-sports niche into a mild comedy that feels like even more of a failure when you realize how good it could have been.
The film feels false from the start, with graffiti-themed opening credits blending into an opening sequence of Haley (Missy Peregrym) and her two best buds, Poot (John Patrick Amedori) and Frank (Kellan Lutz), doing some totally rad BMX tricks in an empty swimming pool behind a house undergoing construction. The whole thing feels like a Target commercial, and Bendinger seems unwilling to hold the camera still for more than three seconds, afraid that her carefully constructed semblance of liveliness will start to crumble. Haley and pals get busted by the cops when they break a window, but only Haley is caught, and the judge gives her the option of attending Texas Military Academy or the Vickerman Gymnastics Academy and, though Haley opts for a soldier’s life, she’s packed off to VGA. I found it odd when the Texas Military Academy was mentioned; that’s an unusual and arbitrary place for a boarding school, I thought. But it turns out Haley lives in Plano, which is just north of Dallas, and the gymnastics school is outside of Houston. The whole thing is set in Texas, but in another of Bendinger’s missteps, she fails to imbue the film with a sense of its setting. Bring It On took advantage of its Southern California locale, featuring the bad girl from L.A. and a team captain named Torrance, after the SoCal town near Redondo Beach. But there’s nothing uniquely Texan at all in Stick It: Frank drives an old pick-up, and there are occasional glimpses of state highway signs, but that’s it; there’s nary a breakfast taco or minority figure in sight. Making the geography integral to the story and failing to capitalize on it is confusing and amateurish, but even so, it’s the least of Bendinger’s errors.
So Haley heads off to Houston and the academy run by Burt Vickerman (Jeff Bridges). And oh, Jeff Bridges, how the mighty do fall. Bridges is a more than competent actor, an enjoyable, honest Everyman, who’s played Duane Jackson and The Dude, and it’s painful to see him stumbling about in the role of grizzled old coach for a women’s gymnastics team. It’s a simple role, and Bendinger’s script demands nothing more of it than the cliched plot points you’d expect — coldness, coming to terms with the antihero, superficial emotional arc, acceptance of antihero as equal, hugs, fade to black — so Bridges is on autopilot the entire time. In addition to dealing with Burt, Haley also has to contend with fellow gymnasts Joanne (Vanessa Lengies), Mina (Maddy Hoyt), and Wei Wei (Nikki SooHoo), and though Mina and Wei Wei eventually warm up to her, Joanne holds a grudge for most of the movie, because back in the day Haley bailed on her team and Joanne is still upset, and you know how that’s going to end. Mina and Wei Wei are placeholders of the worst kind, more like extras with a few lines than characters in their own right. Bendinger focuses her attention on Haley the rebel, who you can tell is a rebel because her bedroom has a bunch of totally sweet graffiti tags on the dresser and walls, and because she wears Black Flag t-shirts. It’s a white, well-off take on what it means to be street, a sense of urbanism filtered through American Eagle Outfitters. After all, nothing says “badass” like camo capris.
Poot and Frank find Haley in Houston, which is pretty impressive given that (1) they thought she was at juvenile hall, not a gymnastics school, and (2) Houston is Texas’ biggest city and the fourth-largest in the country, and these two X-Games wannabes would have a hard time finding the nearest PacSun, much less conducting a manhunt for their friend in the coastal plains region. But they find her, which allows Poot to flirt with Joanne and Frank to, well, not do much. Poot (and believe me, I feel like an idiot every time I type that) tells Joanne at one point that Frank is gay, but his joking tone and lack of closure on the subject leave the issue in doubt. Why would Bendinger skirt this? One of the male cheerleaders in Bring It On was openly gay, and that was six years ago, in the dark days before Brokeback Mountain. I’m not sure if she drops the ball because she’s trying not to offend potential family audiences or of she’s just an incompetent filmmaker, but either is equally likely. I’m actually more inclined to lean toward her being untalented, since she even rips off Kevin Smith by having Poot refer to Frank as his “hetero life mate.” It’s too specific and fleeting a reference to pass as homage, and instead feels like a joke Bendinger thought she could get away with plagiarizing, probably figuring that her audience and Clerks fans aren’t likely to overlap.
Sports movies, even ones about things like cheerleading and gymnastics — which are athletic competitions of grace and supreme skill but, sorry, not really sports — need some kind of high-stakes event to train for, some goal for the wayward hero to achieve on his or her path to high-school greatness. But Bendinger never convinces us that the film’s final competition is anywhere near that important. It’s a national-level competition, if I recall, but Haley’s backstory involves her abandoning her team at the world level; why not set the final sequence there? The stakes are higher, and it would allow Haley to properly exorcise her demons from previously blowing her shot on the global stage, not to mention provide some actual competition between Haley and the film’s flimsily detailed and poorly used villain, Tricia (Tarah Paige). As it is, when Haley and her team members go to the national meet, there’s absolutely no viewer involvement in the outcome. Haley does her best to sell us on the perils of gymnastics, though, narrating in a sporadic voice-over about what it’s like to fall down a lot for the glory of dominating a really specialized field. Some of her speeches come across as stupidly arrogant, though: As much as I respect the physical training required to be a professional gymnast, I’ll have to disagree with Haley when she says “it’s like the Navy SEALs, only harder.” As far as I know, teenage gymnasts aren’t drowned and resuscitated as part of their training, and aren’t likely to sustain enemy fire while trying to stick a dismount. But I digress.
Bendinger tries to do here what she did in Bring It On, namely, sell teenage sex. Doing this for cheerleaders dancing in unison was a piece of cake, because they were cheerleaders. Dancing. In unison. It pretty much writes itself. In Stick It, she again uses her female stars as pieces of toned meat, letting the camera ogle them with close-ups as they adhere their leotards to their backsides; there’s one extreme close-up of Peregrym’s partially exposed butt cheek that feels almost uncomfortable when projected on the big screen. However, the cheerleader-as-sexpot myth has more legs to stand on than the gymnast does, if only because no one wants the tiny, physically underdeveloped women that win Olympic gold on the uneven bars to be turned into pin-ups. But more and more it looks as if Bendinger wasn’t so much a breakthrough talent a few years ago as much as really, really lucky, and the passage of time hasn’t added anything to her limited bag of tricks. By the time the credits rolled, I realized I’d been playing “Mickey” in my head for 20 minutes, hoping that Bendinger’s film would take a hard left into enjoyability. No such luck.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.It's Already Been Broughten
Stick It / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()