Film Reviews

Pep Rally

Only the United States could have invented the concept of cheerleading. It takes a unique combination of repressed sex drive and denial to come up with a method for blossoming young ladies to shake their developing moneymakers in front of horny young guys, then claim that the entire enterprise is good wholesome fun because it's simply a way of supporting the football team. Yeah. And Britney Spears is a serious musician.

Which is not to say that being a cheerleader isn't hard work, above and beyond dodging the advances of all the Lester Burnhams and Ted Bundys of the world. Anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows how hard it is to remain perky and cheerful for three straight hours; doing that while jumping up and down and balancing precariously on a colleague's outstretched arm has to require great skill and practice. These women (and guys, too) are indeed athletes. So why not use them as fodder for a sports movie? The porn industry has already exhausted most of the other possibilities.

Well, Bring It On isn't exactly a sports movie. It also isn't quite a titillation movie. It's sort of a parody, but not really, because it takes the requisite athletic ability seriously. But it's never quite clear whether director Peyton Reed means to mock or praise. Case in point: A key character's emotional low point received howls of laughter from the audience. And yet the film is infectious, like one of its many original titles, Cheer Fever. It grows on you. It's even self-aware enough to begin with an audacious cheer routine that apes American Beauty in parts; the girls chant such lines as "I swear I'm not a whore" and "You can look but don't you hump."

Kirsten Dunst plays Torrance (known as Tor), who is voted head cheerleader when the retiring Tori Spelling-esque Big Red (Lindsay Sloane) goes away to college. Over the objections of her brattier squadmates, she recruits the new misfit transfer student Missy (Eliza Dushku, Faith on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer), who, being from L.A., is totally goth and well versed in physical combat. Unfortunately Missy also brings with her the source of the film's conflict: the revelation that Big Red stole all the cheerleading-competition routines from a rival squad in East Compton. ("I know you don't think a white girl made that shit up," declares that school's head cheerleader.) On the other hand, she does have a sexy brother who likes the Clash, and who, despite being in high school, looks old enough to have been a fan while the band was still touring.

Among the film's more amusing conceits is the idea that while the cheerleaders are award-winners, the football team absolutely sucks, consisting of glazed-over dummies who address everyone as "fag" before high-fiving and laughing moronically. And the dialogue comes fast and furious. There may be one too many variations on "She puts the itch in bitch, she puts the ass in massive" and so on, but there are also some surprisingly smart throwaways, like when Tor tries to get her father to sponsor the South Central team by sarcastically addressing him as "Mr. Level Playing Field."

Unfortunately there is a complete lack of tension, mainly because there aren't any antagonists, and every problem seems to be promptly solved with a group hug. The South Central team members are nice people, and they deserve to win the competition, but we don't know enough about them to fully root for them. We know more about Tor's team, but can we really root for the rich whiteys to crush the dreams of inner-city youth, no matter how much we may like Kirsten Dunst?

Bring It On will fade from memory very quickly, but it's pleasant while it lasts. And it does make a case that cheerleaders are more than, as one character puts it, "dancers who have gone retarded," if not always by much.

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Luke Y. Thompson