On Bring It On!

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I remember the first time I ever watched Bring It On! because I kind of fell in love with it. It was such a great movie to watch growing up. It is notable for having several actors I am familiar with in it, including Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku, Nicole Bilderback, Tsianina Joelson, as well as Blaque. According to The New York Times review:

Since ”Bring It On” is a movie about high school cheerleaders, you might expect whatever plot it has to be a flimsy scaffolding for the shameless exploitation of young women in short skirts — a slice of diet cheesecake, a ”Coyote Not Quite So Ugly.” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Kirsten Dunst, who plays Torrance Shipman, the striving, energetic captain of a Southern California pompom squad, displays her bellybutton in nearly every frame of the picture, and when she’s not wearing her cute red and black uniform, she’s outfitted in pajamas, a bikini or, when modesty (or the school dress code) demands, a series of colorful sports bras.

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But ”Bring It On,” directed with giddy, sometimes sloppy pep-rally intensity by Peyton Reed from a brisk, slangy script by Jessica Bendinger, is more than a low-minded appeal to male lechery — though it does feature an extended visit to the girls’ locker room, a scene in which the cheerleaders don skimpy bathing suits and wash cars (it’s a fundraiser), and of course innumerable splits, leg extensions and carefully photographed bounces. But in the post-Brandi Chastain era, female athleticism and female sexuality seem closer together than ever, and underneath this movie’s tight acrylic sweater beats an unapologetically 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 impossible to dispel the notion that cheerleading is a silly, trivial enterprise — a notion upon which much of the comedy in ”Bring It On” depends — but this movie rarely feels cynical, condescending or cheap.

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Cheerleading, the filmmakers insist, is a sport, requiring discipline, timing and strength as well as, um, certain physiological gifts. One of the running jokes is that the Rancho Grande High School football team — represented by a couple of dim, clueless jerks — loses every game, while the cheering squad has racked up five consecutive national championships. And ”Bring It On” is, structurally as well as thematically, a sports movie, following Torrance and her squad through the anxieties and tribulations of a season aimed toward the climactic 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 laments when she learns of the theft, and the film is at its most honest and interesting when it deals with the consequences of her discovery, and her relationship with Isis (Gabrielle Union), the Clovers’ proud captain.

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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 better dancers and better athletes than their white counterparts, and also, for all their gumption and self-sufficiency, the agents of a white girl’s moral awakening.

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.

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”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” left off.

And then retreating. ”Bring It On” 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 movie, it’s a teenage romantic comedy, which means that Torrance must give up bad, popular Aaron (Richard Hillman) for cute, goodhearted misfit Cliff (Jesse Bradford).

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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 terrific comic actress, largely because of her great expressive range, and the nimbleness with which she can shift from anxiety to aggression to genuine hurt.

No doubt with the preservation of its PG-13 rating in view, ”Bring It On” tiptoes around the issue of sex even as it flaunts its wholesome sex appeal. But in one scene, when Torrance and Cliff surprise each other while brushing their teeth, it ascends to the frothy, sublimated seductiveness of classic screwball. 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 a wonderfully subtle moment — exactly what you’d expect from a cheerleader movie.

According to Birth.Movies.Death. article titled, “Why BRING IT ON Is, Like, Totally A Good Movie“:

Released in 2000, Bring It On set itself apart from other teen comedies at the time. Unlike American Pie, it didn’t try to win an audience with raunchiness, and unlike teen rom-coms, it didn’t rely on heady relationship melodrama tucked beneath a veneer of in-the-moment pop culture jokes (ahem, She’s All That). On the film’s surface, it was a sharp, satirical look at the world of competitive high school cheerleading, with Kirsten Dunst as Torrance Shipman, the newly-minted captain of a squad on its way to their sixth consecutive national championship.

Happy and oblivious in her senior year of high school, Torrance has everything going for her: a perfect boyfriend, the top spot on the cheerleading squad, and a championship victory on the horizon. She’s surrounded by snarky airhead fellow cheerleaders who try to thwart her decisions at every turn, and the film is peppered with clever dialogue exchanges as Torrance deftly maneuvers around their BS, navigating her way through her new responsibilities. Enter Missy and a harsh dose of reality.

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Missy (Eliza Dushku) is a new student transfer, an edgy gymnast who joins the squad and whose presence represents a rude awakening for Torrance in more ways than one. Not only does she clue Torrance in to her former captain stealing routines from an inner-city squad, but as a narrative device, she’s there to help Torrance make that rough and painful transition from high school to adulthood. In high school we live in this protective little bubble filled with friends and exams and extracurriculars, and while some of that prepares us for college and the world beyond, none of it truly prepares us for the responsibilities and the harsh realities of being on our own, of taking ownership of our mistakes and our faults, of trying to be better versions of ourselves. Missy helps remove the blinders from Torrance’s eyes, showing her a world that exists beyond her high school, and even her own city, by taking her down to East Compton to see the Clovers, whose cheers her former captain plagiarized.

There’s an element here of white performers co-opting and profiting off of black culture without giving credit where credit is due, as the Clovers’ captain, Isis (Gabrielle Union), informs Torrance that white girls have been slapping a blonde wig on their stuff for years without giving them so much as a thank you. (I don’t think Miley Cyrus has ever seen Bring It On.)

From there, Torrance realizes that her responsibilities aren’t as simple as just painting by a set of simple numbers to take her team to victory. Life isn’t handed to you on a silver platter: it’s about hard work. And even then, she still does everything she can to avoid the real work, going so far as to hire a choreographer — the end result is hilariously cringe-inducing. And as much as the film is about growing up and accepting responsibility, it’s also about creating something organic and original, and the difficult work that goes into that creative endeavor, even if it is choreographing a cheerleading routine. But Bring It On also acknowledges that all art (yes, even cheerleading) copies other art, and when Torrance finally puts together her very own routine, she draws inspiration from swing dancing, classic musicals, martial arts and even mimes.

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All of this makes the film sound terribly deep — it’s a satirical cheerleading comedy that happens to have a witty script, clever dialogue and adorable stars (remember Jesse Bradford? He should have been a big deal). It also showed us that Kirsten Dunst had some serious comedic chops, and that a film about something as fluffy as cheerleading can be downright hysterical. Bring It On also proved, in a time when teen comedies were either overly sentimental and formulaic or overtly raunchy, that all you need is a great sense of humor and a relatable story to succeed.

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They even did a cover of Toni Basil’s 1981 video, “Mickey,” which is considered the very first choreographed dance video:

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2 thoughts on “On Bring It On!

  1. Pingback: Favorite Cancelled Shows: Dollhouse | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Interview with the Vampire | The Progressive Democrat

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