Sunday, July 21, 2013

Off the Shelf: Bring it On (2000)

Who would have thought that a film about competing cheerleading squads could be so much fun? Certainly not me. But Bring it On springs plenty of surprises. For one thing, it's not just another hormonal teen comedy about sex. It's also not another self-congratulatory jolt of testosterone about winning the big game. And even if the romantic parts of the story follow in the footsteps of already familiar formula, the picture has a tickling spirit that tweaks you on the nose. Director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Jessica Bendinger have put together an affectionate and cheerful look at what is often a catty and competitive sport without turning snide about it. The cheerleaders aren't bubble-headed conformists who fear losing status at the high school. Reed and Bendinger create instead a comic tapestry that dispenses with pom-pom-waving clich├ęs. Bring it On shows the relationship the sport has to interpretive dance, swing, martial arts and even Busby Berkeley choreography. We can see how the standard cheerleading routines at school football and basketball games are only warmups for national competitions that are every bit as difficult as gymnastic events.

In the story, Torrance Shipman (Kirsten Dunst) has just been elected captain of her Toro cheerleading squad from Rancho Cane High School in San Diego. She's carrying quite a tradition on her shoulders, too, because they have won six straight championships at the nationals. But when one of the veterans breaks her leg during practice, they elect a new girl, Missy Patone (Eliza Dushku) to take her place. While working out their standard winning routine, Missy informs Torrance that it was stolen from the Clovers, a black hip-hop squad from East Compton in Los Angeles, by the Toros' former captain. While Torrance wrestles with finding a new routine for the Toros and develops romantic feelings for Missy's brother Cliff (Jesse Bradford), the Clovers, led by Isis (Gabrielle Union) are having financial problems that might keep them out of the championships altogether. Bring it On is about how both captains try to save the reputations of their squads so they can finally square off to see who is the best.

Kirsten Dunst & Gabrielle Union

There is certainly no escaping the not-so-hidden irony that having a very white-bread cheerleading squad taking their best routines from a black one echoes how black culture has always been appropriated by whites. Yet in this case, Bring it On is about more than Little Richard being ripped off by Pat Boone. The filmmakers don't make the Toros easy targets for that kind of derision. The film instead shows how mutual respect in the profession helps to transcend the racial divide.Watching both of these groups compete is like trying to compare Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker: They both have soul.

Speaking of soul, Kirsten Dunst brings poise and a rapt intelligence to the part. Her earlier work in Little Women, and comedies like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Dick, showed Dunst to be a wily and unpredictable presence whose face can also buoyantly light up a screen. In Bring it On she plays a young woman grappling with both her talent and her integrity, and she doesn't once turn it into a solemn exercise in personal redemption. The sinewy Eliza Dushku (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse), who seems to bend the camera around her limber frame, starts out as a moody outsider, but gradually transforms herself into a shimmering jewel. And Jesse Bradford grounds the film with the pleasantly droll humour of a junior Don McKellar. As dazzling as Gabrielle Union is (she seems to move to the rhythms of her speech), her scenes are far too brief. Bring it On doesn't spend enough time contrasting the two teams (and their captains) so that we can comprehend how different the process of training is for both of them. The film also errs in having a stock villain in Aaron (Richard Hillman), a male cheerleader who starts out as Torrance's boyfriend. He's nothing more than a wind-up Ken doll on steroids.

Eliza Dushku & Jesse Bradford

Bring it On both satirizes and revels in the sexual banter, the songs that bait and celebrate, and it doesn't put these people down for their lifestyle choices. Where a picture like American Beauty (1999) took the easy road by turning suburbanites into soulless consumers and materialists (so we could feel morally superior laughing at them), Bring it On takes the air out of smug self-righteousness. The picture has us beaming at a profession that has drawn its fair share of put-downs. Given the jaded times we live in, this could be seen as downright heroic.  

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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