Since Bring It On is a film about high school cheerleaders, you might expect whatever story it has to be a flimsy scaffolding for the unapologetic exploitation of young girls in short skirts – a slice of diet cheesecake, a ”Coyote Not Quite So Ugly.”
And you definitely wouldn’t be wrong. Kirsten Dunst, who plays Torrance Shipman, the strong, dynamic captain of a Southern California pompom squad, shows her bellybutton in nearly every frame of the picture, and when she’s not wearing her cute red and black uniform, she’s dressed in pajamas, a bikini or, when modesty (or the school dress code) requires, a collection of colorful sports bras.
But Bring It On movie directed with giddy, at times, sloppy pep-rally intensity by Peyton Reed from a lively, slangy script by Jessica Bendinger, is more than a low-minded appeal to male lustfulness – although it does pay an extended visit to the girls’ locker room, a shot in which the cheerleaders don skimpy bathing suits and wash cars (for a fundraiser), and certainly, innumerable splits, leg extensions and carefully photographed bounces. But in the post-Brandi Chastain era, female athleticism and female sexuality appear much closer together than before, and underneath this film’s tight acrylic sweater beats an brave feminist heart.
If Mr. Reed’s camera can’t help ogle Torrance and her teammates, Ms. Bendinger’s script manages to respect their hard work and their aspirations. It may be hard to drive away the notion that cheerleading is a foolish, trivial enterprise – a notion upon which much of the comedy in Bring It On movie relies – but this film barely seems cynical, condescending or cheap.
Cheerleading, the filmmakers insist, is a sport, requiring discipline, timing and strength as well as, um, certain physiological gifts. One of the recurring gags is that the Rancho Grande High School football team – represented by a bunch of dim, clueless jerks – loses at every game, while the cheering squad has stacked up five consecutive national championships. And Bring It On full movie is, structurally as well as thematically, a sports film, following Torrance and her squad through the nervousness and tribulations of a season headed toward the frightening national championships in Daytona, Fla.
Their main competition comes from the East Compton Clovers, a mostly black inner-city squad whose crowd-pleasing routines Torrance’s villainous predecessor (Lindsay Sloane) had plagiarized. ”My whole cheerleading career is based on a lie,” Torrance wails when she discovers the theft, and the movie is at its most honest and intriguing when it deals with the consequences of her realization, and her relationship with Isis (Gabrielle Union), the Clovers’ proud captain.
A whole movie, rather than just a subplot, might have been devoted to East Compton’s struggle for recognition and to the out-of-uniform lives of Isis’s squad, played with gusto by the members of the singing group Blaque. As it is, the Clovers are on hand to serve as symbols of a complexity the movie isn’t quite able to explore. They’re much better dancers and better athletes than their white opponents, plus, for all their resourcefulness and self-sufficiency, the agents of a white girl’s moral arousing.
On the other hand, the fact that a bouncy teenage sports comedy can even gesture toward serious matters of race and economic inequality is pretty impressive, as is the occasional snarl of genuine satire. The vicious back-stabbing and defensive homophobia of the cheerleaders seem as accurate as the high school vernacular in which they address one another, and even the cheering hides an edge of hostility behind its smiling allure.
”That’s all right, that’s O.K.,/ You’re gonna pump our gas some day,” the Rancho Grande squad chants in the faces of rivals from a less affluent school district. And the opening sequence of strutting cheerleaders mocking their own power and vulnerability puts those in the audience out for a cheap voyeuristic thrill on the defensive from the start, picking up where American Beauty movie left off.
And then retreating. Bring It On movie is, in the end, a deeply conventional movie, which is hardly surprising given that it combines two of the most convention-bound genres in existence. In addition to being a sports film, it’s also a teenage romantic comedy, meaning that Torrance must give up bad, famous Aaron (Richard Hillman) for adorable, goodhearted misfit Cliff (Jesse Bradford).
Mr. Bradford, with his crooked smile and his unthreatening coolness, is perfectly suited for the role. But it is Ms. Dunst who carries the movie and unifies its disparate elements. She’s a horrific comic actress, mostly because of her great expressive range, and the skillfullness with which she can turn from anxiety to aggression to truly vulnerable.
No doubt with the preservation of its PG-13 rating in view, Bring It On movie online tiptoes around the issue of sex even as it flaunts its wholesome sex appeal. But in one sequence, when Torrance and Cliff surprise on another while brushing their teeth, it elevates to the frothy, sublimated seductiveness of classic weirdo. Ms. Dunst’s expression as she emerges from the bathroom, having done nothing more risque than spit in the sink, is perfectly enigmatic and completely convincing, a mixture of mischievous amazement and unconscious arousal. It’s an incredibly subtle moment – exactly what you’d expect from a cheerleader film.